For years, the mantra from those who think charter schools are the answer to what ails Philadelphia's schools has been “people are voting with their feet,” citing the mushrooming numbers of families who have transferred out of traditional public schools in favor of charters.
But over recent weeks, the people voted with ballots and they voted decisively against turning over their schools, Steel Elementary in Nicetown and Muñoz-Marín Elementary in Kensington, to charter school management companies.
Parents voted by a more than 2-1 ratio against Mastery Charter. This was in spite of an aggressive campaign by Mastery and the fact that a Mastery-run Steel, drawing on a generous District contract and private funding, would have significantly more resources than if the school were managed by the District.
The margin at Muñoz-Marín was even bigger, with three quarters of voters casting a ballot to keep the school under District control. Here, too, parents expressed concern about the impact of budget cuts on instruction and school climate, but nevertheless voted to stick with a District-run school.
The larger question here is whether this vote is indicative of broad opposition to the District’s policy of relying on a few favored charter school companies to turn around so-called failing schools. This year was the first time -- and, I dare say, the last time? -- that the District has allowed a parent vote on converting schools to charters.
Steel and Muñoz-Marín both serve impoverished, working-class communities of color, one being predominantly African American, the other Latino. Although there are certainly differences in the schools and the neighborhoods, some common elements are also clear.
Both schools had a core of parent leaders who were strongly opposed to the charter option. Both School Advisory Council leaders (Kendra Brooks at Steel and Maria Cruz at Muñoz-Marín) worked to rally parent opposition.
Both schools had veteran teachers and principals who also opposed the charter operators. Positive relationships between home and school counted for more than standardized test scores for most parents.
In both neighborhoods, the public option had significant community support, both locally and citywide. In Nicetown, faith and community organizations joined the fight. In Kensington, the support of State Sen. Tina Tartaglione and her organization played a significant role. Parents United, the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, and rank-and-file teachers all actively supported both campaigns.
The results of the votes suggest that broader inferences can be made about the District’s Renaissance charter initiative and the notion of school choice.
Parents are not happy with underfunded, often poorly managed, public schools, nor should they be. But what frequently is overlooked is that they remain identified with the core values at the heart of public education. At both Muñoz-Marín and Steel, parents have stood up strongly for equity, the idea that all public schools should offer a high-quality education to all children.
There is strong sentiment in our communities for investing in neighborhood public schools and making them more accountable to the community. This sentiment cuts across the charter-District divide.
At a meeting in Kensington, one parent lamented that she wanted to support the neighborhood public school, but felt that due to the lack of resources she had to vote for the charter, which would be better able to serve her child. Other parents responded by saying that we can’t just do what’s best for our individual families, but must act as a community to strengthen a community institution. The attachment to democratic values remains strong in spite of the bureaucracy and inequity of our public school system. Charters promote a market-driven, parents-as-consumers approach that cuts against what has succeeded in improving conditions for working-class communities.
Both charter school companies came up against this in somewhat different ways.
Mastery offers a very particular vision of school turnaround, one that some people enthusiastically embrace and others vehemently oppose. But the Steel vote might have been less a referendum on the Mastery model than a rejection of top-down imposition by the District.
That being said, the idea that Mastery knows what’s best for North Philadelphia did not play well with Steel parents. Although the District's governance needs to be more democratic, Mastery and other mega-charters are run like businesses with a self-perpetuating board of directors and minimal public oversight and accountability.
ASPIRA seemed much better positioned to carry the day, having a history of advocacy in the Puerto Rican community. However ASPIRA’s evolution from a community organization that supported unions and opposed school privatization to a business with substantial real estate holdings seems to have cost it support among working-class Latinos.
What public education advocates should be saying is that it’s time to dump the whole top-down shock doctrine of turnaround schools in favor of investing resources in neighborhood schools and building real partnerships among staff, parents, and the community. Rather than relying on charters to fix the most troubled schools, the School District of Philadelphia needs to look at alternatives, like community schools, and look at districts like Union City, N.J., which made dramatic achievement gains without any privatization.
As long as we have the "portfolio" crowd of Gov. Corbett, Mayor Nutter, and Philadelphia School Partnership head Mark Gleason calling the shots, this seems unlikely.
Ron Whitehorne is a retired teacher and a coordinator for the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS).
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.