In 13 short years, the charter school movement in Philadelphia has grown from nothing to a network with 67 schools and more than 36,000 students, financed by $400 million in taxpayer dollars.
Counted together, they would be the second largest school district in Pennsylvania.
But today, the work of many dedicated educators who eagerly seized the opportunity to create successful learning communities has been nearly overshadowed by revelations about profiteering, excessive CEO salaries, mismanagement, and nepotism at several charters.
Some who witnessed the charter approval process, especially in the early years, now tie the current troubles to Distict officials who ignored warning signs and approved deficient proposals in the rush to create as many schools as possible. Officials who were either pressured politically or committed to school choice ideology then looked the other way when evidence of questionable financial and ethical practices began to surface.
“We gave up too many charters too fast in the beginning,” said Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter’s chief education officer. “We’re paying for that now.”
But neither this checkered history nor uneven academic results have slowed the momentum for creating more charter schools here and around the country. Both Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and the Obama administration are aggressively pursuing charter expansion, primarily through the conversion of failing public schools, as a centerpiece of their education reform policy.
Ackerman’s Renaissance Schools initiative could ultimately result in the conversion of dozens of city schools to charters under a sweeping “turnaround” policy promoted by the federal Department of Education; it starts with seven in the fall.
Last fall, six new charters opened, and the SRC is scheduled to vote on several expansion requests in June.
People of varying political stripes – free-market Republicans, African-American Democrats, progressive and traditional educators alike – have coalesced around charter schools as the best way to improve historically dismal education opportunities for poor children of color. The charter movement brings together hedge-fund financiers dedicated to defeating unions and big government with inner-city families who see these schools of choice as a lifeline for their children.
Groups with community roots like ASPIRA and Congreso de Latinos Unidos operate charter schools alongside organizations like Mastery, whose founder Scott Gordon is a former businessman.
“Charters were supposed to do two things,” said Sharmain Matlock-Turner, president of the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition and one of the city’s staunchest charter advocates. “Create quality options and choices for families in low-income communities, and change the face of how public education was going to be delivered for all students.
“Has it done those things? Absolutely.”
If there’s criminality, Matlock-Turner said, that’s what the courts are for, but she questions any rush to impose more reporting requirements on charter schools.
Others, like Shorr, are less certain.
“There are enough good charter operators in Philadelphia that if they can continue to do a good job, and be public about their academic gains and challenges, the movement can stay alive and be more productive in the future than in the past,” she said. “But it depends on if people are going to be transparent and accountable.”
Charters “are reframing how we think about public education,” said Benjamin Rayer, who runs the District’s charter school office and is a former official of Mastery Charter Schools, which will soon operate seven schools in the city, including six that are converted District schools.
Measuring charters’ success
Still, whether charters have lived up to their academic promise – and even how to measure their impact – is a matter of heated debate. As a group, according to a 2008 report by Research for Action, RAND, and Mathematica, Inc., students’ average gains when attending Philadelphia charters were statistically indistinguishable from their gains in public schools.
Yet proponents say charters in Philadelphia have done better than District schools at meeting federal targets for adequate yearly progress (AYP), even when factoring in that charters on average are smaller and have fewer performance targets to meet.
No equivalent information between public schools and charter schools has been tracked for measures like dropout, attrition, and college-going rates. Concerns persist about charter schools dumping challenging students (see The ultimate challenge).
Some successes do stand out, such as the first graduating class at Mastery Thomas in South Philadelphia, which Mastery converted from a middle to a middle-high school. Gordon reports that for this year’s graduating seniors, 80 of 87 are registered for college in the fall, two-thirds in four-year schools.
Overall, thousands more families enter lotteries to enroll in charters than can be accommodated.
Charter schools in Philadelphia, Rayer noted, offer a range of models, from Afrocentric education to dual-language immersion. One charter is in the woods in upper Roxborough where students study nature, another in Chinatown, alongside food warehouses. “Schools are doing widely different things, and they are getting results,” he said.
Some worry about exacerbating race and class divisions already well pronounced in the city. Green Woods, the Roxborough charter, is 83 percent White in a city where the District schools are more than 80 percent African American and Latino. About half of the city’s charters are 90 percent or more African American.
But the relative freedom to adopt a mission, hire like-minded staff, and create community around a shared purpose increases a charter’s chance of being successful, said Stacey L. Cruise, principal of First Philadelphia Charter School for Literacy, housed in a gleaming building on an otherwise frayed street in Bridesburg.
First Philadelphia’s student body is 37 percent African American, 30 percent White, 20 percent Latino, 3 percent Asian, and 9 percent “multicultural,” with nine in ten from low-income families. Its students put on plays, perform in an orchestra, can study several languages, and visit foreign countries.
“You find people who agree with what you are trying to do and are interested in working in an environment like this,” she said. “It’s easier to set a climate and have unity throughout the school.”
Increased freedom, however, cuts both ways, observed Susan Gobreski, executive director of Education Voters PA, whose child attends a charter school.
“The thinking was that if we unfettered schools [from bureaucratic requirements], you would get a chance to see what happens. Here, we got a chance to see both what can happen when it’s done well and what happens when it’s done poorly.”