This guest commentary comes from Christine Carlson. She is a public school parent, a member of the Philadelphia School Partnership advisory committee on Great Philly Schools, and a founder of the Greater Center City Neighborhood Schools Coalition.The Notebook invites guest blog posts on current topics in Philadelphia education from its readers. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to make a submission.
Last month, the Philadelphia School Partnership announced that it had received significant new funding, propelling it closer to its goal of raising $100 million so that it can award grants to increase the number of “high-performing seats” in Philadelphia schools.
PSP’s stated mission is to contribute to the expansion of all high-performing schools, whether private, charter, or District-run. So far, however, the only schools that have been awarded PSP grants have been private and charter schools.
We can debate whether PSP’s true goal is to privatize public education. But at this point, it is hard to know its intentions because no District-run schools have submitted applications for funds, according to PSP executive director Mark Gleason.
Why is this? One reason certainly is that PSP’s grant requirements make it very hard for District schools to apply.
PSP grants come in three categories: incubation grants to fund new school ideas, start-up grants to cover the cost of starting new schools, and growth grants to increase seats in currently operating successful schools.
As it stands, charter and private schools are in an inherently better position to meet PSP’s conditions in all three categories. For District schools, even the most successful, figuring out how to apply using these guidelines is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
That’s only part of it. For District schools, it's up to the principals to apply for funds. This presents its own set of difficulties. Cuts over the last two years have forced principals to take multi-tasking to new levels. In addition to leading their schools, they are now nurses, counselors, and noon-time aides. It is unrealistic to expect them to take on the job of grant writer as well.
Concern about PSP donor anonymity also makes some principals wary.
Gleason notes that 5 percent of the funds donated to PSP come from donors requesting anonymity, well below the typical nonprofit ratio of 12 percent of donors over $1 million.
Even so, these concerns are real. PSP must reach out to principals, offer them greater transparency, and give them the support they need to apply.
It is also time for the District to identify and embolden principals to be creative and move forward with grant applications. Principals with new ideas should be encouraged to set up pilot programs with an incubation grant. Those in high-performing schools located in small or old buildings should be encouraged to think big and apply for growth grants. Most of all, the District must look to see how these funds can be used in a greater strategic plan.
The District must be proactive on this because the most effective District principals don’t call attention to themselves. Their prior experiences with a dysfunctional central office have made them keep their ingenuity under the radar in order to avoid interference or repercussions.
School Reform Commission Chairman Pedro Ramos said at PSP’s announcement that he thinks of the group as facilitating Renaissance school conversions. This is extremely limited thinking. With so many school closures imminent, Ramos should be looking at the bigger picture, beyond present catchment areas. He and the SRC should be visualizing how PSP grants can be used to help optimize the number of high-performing seats in District schools that can serve students displaced by the closures.
If PSP really wants to help all schools, it must look to expanding its grant model to include a realistic way to allow District-run schools to participate in the process. It must look at ways to involve the District in planning outside the Renaissance School scenario. And it must find a way to replicate successful District schools while keeping them community-based and truly public.
Whether one is for or against PSP distributing funds for schools, $100 million is a significant amount of money. It’s not constructive to complain about a bias against District schools when none have yet applied. Rather, we should do everything we can to make sure that the biggest chunk of this money goes to our District-run schools. And we must work to make sure that the District itself plays an active role in the process.