David Osborne says Philadelphia could learn a lot from cities that have a cooperative relationship between charter and traditional public schools — like New Orleans, which is virtually all charter. I’m not sure how that shows a “cooperative” relationship, unless what he really means is that the Philadelphia School District should just close up shop.
That seems to be the real point of his articles, his book, and his speeches about it: Charters are better, so they should expand and get free space from the District. Here's a statement that really gets to his point: “Though they get substantially less funding per pupil, Philadelphia’s 86 independent charters perform better on most measures than the almost 200 traditional schools” and “thousands of families are on their waiting lists.”
But almost nothing about this statement, except for the numbers of schools, is accurate.
Let’s look at a few of his contentions:
“Substantially less funding”
The Pennsylvania Charter Law calculates the per-pupil funding for charters only after the District deducts its non-K-12 expenses, including adult education, community and junior college programs, transportation (which the District has to cover for charter and private school students), and the like. The “lower” amount is not lower unless the charters are entitled to count non-K-12 expenditures that they do not have.
And Philadelphia charters often have more, not less money, than traditional public schools, because they are the beneficiaries of wealthy education “reformers” who shower their pet charters with extra millions. Mastery, KIPP, and Boys' Latin reported more than $72 million in contributions and grants beyond the funding they got from the District for the two years reported on their 2015 tax forms. The Mastery Charter School Foundation reported an additional $20 million in grants and contributions.
“Philadelphia’s . . . charters perform better . . . than the . . . traditional schools”
The charters do not outperform the traditional schools, according to the School Progress Reports. Some excel and others do not — similar to the traditional schools. For example, only 6 of the 86 charters came in first in their peer groups on the Achievement domain. As this study points out, many charters do not serve the same high-needs populations as the District schools.
“Thousands . . . on their waiting lists”
These waiting-list figures are not vetted by any independent agency. KIPP’s 2016 application to operate another charter used two different waitlist numbers. Despite the claims of long waiting lists, many charters, including KIPP, do not replace students who leave (also known as backfilling) or have started to do this only recently, which makes you wonder why they don’t take in some of those “thousands” when spaces open up in their schools.
What does Osborne need to learn about Philly?
He’s right that education reform has been a source of conflict in Philadelphia since 2001 when the city lost the right to run its schools and found itself at the mercy of a state-imposed, unaccountable, and largely opaque School Reform Commission. The SRC’s decisions have too often been made in silence and to the exclusion of parents, teachers, and community members. Although the SRC has faced constant funding crises since the election of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, it has too often made a bad situation worse. Osborne’s column betrayed a lack of knowledge of Philadelphia. He should learn something before telling us what we should be doing.
Osborne could learn that the charters that the District has tried to close have often fought closure through appeals and litigation and, in the case of ASPIRA and Universal, have stayed open by getting the SRC to fail to vote on the District’s closure recommendations.
Osborne could learn from Philadelphia that schools are community institutions, a role that needs to be deepened. New Orleans gave up that idea, and now its parents and students are often forced to travel miles and hours away from their homes to attend the school they were assigned to through the “choice” system. Through the community schools initiative, Philadelphia has refocused its efforts on strengthening the roles that schools can play in the health of their neighborhoods. Osborne ignored how this initiative recognizes this critical role.
Osborne could learn from Philadelphia that parent voice should matter, but has too often been ignored. When parents are allowed to choose the fate of their schools, they have voted to protect schools from privatization. Indeed, the SRC stopped allowing parents to vote when those votes didn’t go the way the “choice” people demanded. Far from being cooperative, many Philadelphia charters have been eager to take advantage of the SRC’s favoritism. Mastery spent significant money to fight the Wister Elementary parents who did not want to lose their school. Those parents lost because they were not allowed a vote.
Osborne could learn that Pennsylvania charters can game the special education system by having fewer expensive, high-needs students and using the triple funds they get for each special education student for whatever purpose they desire. Pennsylvania does not require that the charters spend special education funds on special education students, and the charters have fought imposition of any requirement that they do so.
Osborne thinks that Philadelphia needs a more “cooperative” relationship between the District and the charter schools and proposes as one of his only concrete examples that the District give (his word) District buildings or parts of them to charters. He doesn’t mention whether the charters would pay any rent or any share of the costs. Presumably, his answer would be no. So “cooperation” means yet another financial burden borne by the students and families who are in District schools and will have to shoulder the costs of this “gift.”
How about the charters and their proponents cooperate in the fight for fair funding for public education in Pennsylvania instead of standing aside? Some have, but take the position that additional funding should be contingent on changes in state law that would lead to even more charter expansion.
How about charter supporters take accountability seriously and support closures recommended by the Charter Schools Office? How about if charters cooperate by recognizing the financial impact that charters have on the District’s finances and agreeing to appropriate caps so the District can budget fairly for all of its students?
Cooperation should run both ways.