The charter-school showdown continues.
It’s been 11 weeks since the School Reform Commission unanimously voted to fire public school boss lady Arlene Ackerman. The former superintendent may be gone, yet tensions between community members and the SRC are far from over, especially since the committee is in the midst of closing more public schools and replacing them with charter schools.
Inside Building 440 on North Broad Street last week, anger was stewing and about to reach its boiling point. Sitting in front of the SRC—a currently crippled three-person committee that is designed for five—were armies of agitated community members, baffled students and indignant parents, bracing in suspense for a reality they knew had been coming. Student enrollment has dropped, revenues are down and maintaining the district’s 249 schools—some of which are nearly half-empty—isn’t sustainable. Leroy Nunery, the acting superintendent and Ackerman’s old right-hand-man, waits two hours into the meeting, at 5 p.m., to announce that the SRC is considering closing nine schools, and many more could be on the way.
“We don’t want to leave assets and buildings stranded,” Nunery says.
The news isn’t surprising. School district data show just 47 percent of schools made Adequate Yearly Progress in the 2010-2011 school year, a sluggish improvement over recent years. The school district also announced in February that it had 70,000 vacant seats. Enrollment in Philly’s public schools has been steadily dropping, from 200,000 in 2001 to about 154,000 in 2010 and to just 146,090 today. Meanwhile, enrollment in charter schools has catapulted from 12,000 in 2001 to 44,000 last year, according to the Pew Charitable Trust. Today, about 46,000 students are enrolled in the city’s 80 charter schools.
“They have to start closing and consolidating [public] schools and really manage the decline of the school district, because charters are going to take over,” Councilman At-Large Bill Green said last May during a budget hearing for the school district. “And frankly, they do a much better job.”
School District officials hope to save between $500,000 and $1 million a year by closing some schools and consolidating 14,465 seats. They hope to consolidate 35,000 seats by 2014.
But public school advocates hope to reverse the charter trend by capitalizing on charters’ weaknesses. For instance, public school advocates, like the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and other teacher unions, blasted charters after an April 2011 study from Stanford found that 17 percent of Pennsylvania charters schools are performing better than public schools. Fifty percent are the same and 33 percent are doing worse. They chanted “I told ya so” after the Office of the Controller reviewed the city’s charter schools and released a report in April 2010 that found 13 charters abused taxpayer money due to financial mismanagement, fraud and questionable spending practices, largely because of a lack of school district oversight.
“There are good charters and there are bad charters,” Green says. “There are good public schools and bad public schools. The difference is that public schools don’t close. Charter schools can and should close if [they’re] not performing well. That act of enforcement hasn’t been done by the SRC.”
But that’s changing now. In fact, according to Green, it’s just a matter of time until the district collapses and an entirely new model takes over (he particularly likes the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York). He often goes to SRC meetings, inconspicuously tucked into the back corner, jotting down notes or whispering to an aide. He’s predicted—and called for—public school closings for a long time.
“The point of school is to prepare children in Philadelphia for life,” he says, adding that having a district with close to a 50 percent graduation rate isn’t doing that. “That’s a broken system. Perpetuating that system without providing competition doesn’t make sense if it’s about the children and not about the grown ups.”
As charters continue to replace public schools, the power of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has been weakening. The 17,000-member union is the city’s largest, but it lost about 4,000 teachers over the past decade. With the loss of members comes a loss of thousands of dollars of dues the union would have collected, since most charter schools do not have unions.
“Certainly the charter schools caused our number to decline,” says PFT President Jerry Jordan. “If you put the city’s charter schools together in one district, they’d be the second largest district in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”
Not all public school teachers despise charters. Hope Moffett—the Audenried High School teacher who was sent to teacher-jail (the place teachers are sent if they are about to receive disciplinary action) after speaking out about the school district—had her job saved because of the PFT’s efforts to not let an intimidating school district bully teachers.
Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers from the mid-’70s to the late ’90s, also endorsed charters, leading what was at the time a progressive movement.
Yet teacher unions are now on the defensive, because, Jordan says, “charters changed from their original intent.” Some have. Those with selective admissions are far from the core of the “public” part of public education.
But the growing surge of charters should allow for more community input into how to best restructure Philadelphia’s education system, and they at least offer more accountability than public schools. For instance, Stetson Middle School in Kensington was publicly run until last year, when it was handed over to ASPIRA PA, a nonprofit charter company calling itself an “investment in Latino youth.” While it operated as a public school, teachers filed about 500 suspensions and 20 expulsions, labeling the school persistently dangerous. Last year, run by ASPIRA, teachers filed four suspensions and one expulsion. And students increased in math performance by 22 points and in reading by eight.
The numbers are impressive, but Jordan says that schools shouldn’t promote any particular ethnicity. “We go back to our separate and unequal system that we had in this country since Brown v. Board of [Education],” he says. The school, not operated by a lottery system, is inclusive of its community. Stetson’s principal did not return calls to PW .
The proposed closures of the nine schools reflect a trend happening across the nation, largely due to the influence of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who praises charters. But the PFT still stands as the city’s largest union and has maintained its political muscle. Its recent endorsement of Mayor Nutter during the city’s primaries could put pressure on him to influence the SRC and slow down school closures.
Green says that’s already been happening. Over the past three years, he says the SRC has put a “moratorium” on new charters. “Last year, the SRC didn’t even put out applications for charter schools,” Green adds.
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