Public education is at a crossroads in Philadelphia. An aggressive and well-funded charter school lobby wants to rapidly expand the city’s already sizable charter sector.
Lavish campaign contributions have secured political support in the Republican-dominated state legislature and from mayoral candidate Anthony Williams here in Philadelphia. A well-oiled public relations and media operation has crafted a narrative about children trapped in failing schools and the thousands of families on waiting lists for charters.
The reality of understaffed, poorly resourced public schools destabilized by punitive and largely ineffective school transformation policies has driven many families to seek refuge in charters, few of which perform better than the schools they left. The charter lobby ignores the fact that charter school expansion, given the present charter school law and the absence of additional funding in the form of a charter school reimbursement line in the state budget, can only come at the expense of children in traditional public schools.
They ignore the well-documented evidence of pervasive corruption and the lack of regulation that makes it possible. They ignore the existence of policies that allow many charters to cherry-pick when it comes to admission and retention, thus creating an uneven field with traditional public schools. They ignore the lack of due process for employees, the high rates of teacher turnover, and the efforts at some charters to deny workers their right to organize.
They ignore the lack of transparency and real voice for parents at many charters. And, perhaps most important, they ignore the evidence that a large sector of charter schools has not moved the needle in terms of the overall performance of the School District, particularly in communities of color characterized by deep poverty.
The most fundamental question is not charter schools vs. traditional public schools. The debate should be about equity – should children in Philadelphia and other poor communities in the state be entitled to a quality education with the elements that affluent communities take for granted? Indeed, children in the poorest neighborhoods disproportionately need lower class size and services like health care and counseling that can address the deficits created by poverty.
Sustainable community schools represent a vision that is equitable, democratic, and practical. They represent schools that our children and families need.
The five elements of a community school are:
• Curriculum that is engaging, culturally relevant, and challenging. It includes a broad selection of classes and afterschool programs in the arts, languages, and ethnic studies, as well as AP and honors courses, services for English language learners, special education, GED preparation, and job training.
• High-quality teaching, not high-stakes testing. Appropriate assessments are used to help teachers meet the needs of students, and educators have a real voice.
• Wrap-around supports such as health care and social and emotional services are offered to assist learning. They are available to the whole community before, during, and after school.
• Positive discipline practices such as restorative justice, as opposed to punitive discipline, are stressed, so students grow and contribute to the school community.
• Transformational parent and community engagement is promoted so the full community actively participates in planning and decision-making. This process recognizes the link between the success of the school and the development of the community as a whole. Community schools are open to the community and serve as hubs for neighborhood life.
Sustainable community schools are gaining ground in many communities and have a track record of success. National studies have found that strong community schools have higher graduation rates and lower dropout rates; higher student attendance; higher reading and math scores; improved school climate, including teacher morale and student behavior; greater parent engagement; and lower rates of neighborhood crime and violence.
When Cincinnati, Ohio, converted all of its schools into community schools, the graduation rate rose from 51 percent to 83 percent, and the racial achievement gap dropped enormously. A study of the Children’s Aid Society community schools found that every dollar spent on community schools generates $10 to $15 in value to society.
This is a vision for our public schools that both charter school and traditional public school parents can unite around. Most parents have the same basic concerns about getting a good education for their children. Most charter school parents don’t buy into the notion that luck in a lottery is the way forward.
The community schools model, which seeks to empower parents and neighborhoods as partners in school decision-making, is closer to the vision of community-based charters than either the bureaucratic and centralized management of the District or the governance that characterizes the large, corporate-style charters.
PCAPS, a local labor-community coalition, along with allies in other parts of the state, wants to build a robust movement for sustainable community schools as part of a broad effort for fully and fairly funded schools. Our immediate focus is on getting the School Reform Commission and the state Department of Education to target federal school improvement grants for transforming schools in high-poverty communities to community schools, with a four-year goal of making 5 percent of District schools into community schools.
For more information, visit wearepcaps.org.
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.