Great Schools Compact set to reshape city's education landscape
by Benjamin Herold
for the Notebook/WHYY’s NewsWorks
Philadelphia already has some schools that are really good. So why not focus on sending those schools more money and more students?
That’s the basic challenge facing the District, says Mark Gleason, the executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership.
“Ideally, you could channel students and dollars out of programs and schools that are not getting the job done. We have plenty of those in Philadelphia,” said Gleason. “The goal should be to move those tax dollars and those kids into better performing schools.”
If you want to understand the seismic shifts that are already transforming the city’s educational landscape, you’d be wise to pay attention to Gleason. Through PSP, he has been facilitating the work of the city’s new Great Schools Compact, which commits the District to replacing or transforming 50,000 seats in low-performing schools with better options, many of which are likely to be in charters.
During an extensive interview last week with the Notebook/NewsWorks, Gleason said the compact could go a long way towards relieving the pent-up demand for more high-quality schools among Philadelphia families.
“Parents are definitely frustrated,” he said. “They don’t understand, why, if we have examples of schools that are really good, why we can’t have more of them."
One of the compact’s central strategies is to increase the number of students in high-performing charter schools. That could mean issuing new charters. It could also mean expanding the enrollments of existing charter schools and converting more low-performing District schools into Renaissance charters.
All these options would be welcomed by the many Philadelphia charter operators who are chomping at the bit to expand, said Gleason.
“What we have is a system where charter operators who have done a really good job have been limited in their ability to grow the number of students they serve, and so that’s created a lot of frustration,” he said.
Gleason stresses that PSP wants to see a “proliferation” of successful District-run schools, too.
So far, though, it appears the compact has found little traction on that front.
The District is “very interested in that topic, but I’m not sure how far along they are, honestly,” said Gleason.
He discussed the example of E.M. Stanton Elementary, a District-run neighborhood school with a history of strong academic performance, a hugely successful arts program, and a dedicated parent following. Rather than seek to expand Stanton, however, the District has targeted it for closure, largely because it is small and located in an ancient building.
The expectation should be that the School Reform Commission “find a way to make a high-performing school continue to exist,” said Gleason. However, as it stands now, he said, Stanton is “a money loser” for the District. Keeping the “culture,” rather than the building, should be the priority, he said.
A Great Schools Compact Committee chaired by Mayor Nutter’s Chief Education Officer and including School Reform Commissioners Joseph Dworetzky and Pedro Ramos, as well as a number of charter operators, has already begun work. The committee will be recommending changes to the District’s School Performance Index, used to rate both District and charter schools. It is also exploring ways to make vacant and underutilized District facilities more accessible to charters.
Despite the significance of those issues, the committee does not include any parents, teachers, or advocates for traditional public schools, and its meetings are closed to the public. Gleason addressed those concerns by saying the group is focused on the “internal workings of schools” and is not actually making policy.
“It’s certainly not the intention of the compact that stuff is going to get fast-tracked behind closed doors and come up for a vote without public consideration,” he said. “We’re asking charter school people and District people to put all their cards on the table… In some cases, that’s information that doesn’t belong in the public sector yet.”
Much of the work to be done, said Gleason, is breaking down the mistrust and adversarial relationships that have developed between the District and charter operators.
First and foremost, he said, that means hammering on the message that charter schools are public schools, too.
“We have to get beyond this idea that charter schools are somehow taking away from the public sector,” Gleason stressed. “They are part of the public sector.”
Despite the District’s budget crisis, Gleason thinks the SRC’s decision to hire a Chief Recovery Officer and a high-profile management consultant to lead a massive restructuring effort will support the goals of the compact.
“We have a big bureaucratic system with a lot of facilities and a lot of overhead and a lot of taxpayer dollars tied up in all of that,” said Gleason. “If you can stop spending money on stuff that isn’t working, that’s where you can free up the money to spend on what is working or what can work.”
Herold: What is Philadelphia School Partnership’s role in the Great Schools Compact?
Gleason: We are the facilitators …We have played a convening role in bringing [together] charter operators and representatives of the School District, as well as the mayor’s office and the governor’s office, to forge this agreement that’s all about breaking down the adversarial relationship that has existed between charter and District schools.
Herold: What is the landscape in Philadelphia right now in terms of the ability to expand high-performing schools options?
Gleason: The landscape right now is that the District has a very severe financial crisis on its hands, and that makes all sorts of planning very difficult…
We have a big bureaucratic system with a lot of facilities and a lot of overhead and a lot of taxpayer dollars tied up in all of that. And so freeing up those dollars to facilitate shifting students more aggressively into new or already existing, but high-performing, schools is really challenging.
The District, in hiring a Chief Recovery Officer and a restructuring firm to try to address the District’s financial woes, is trying to get ahead of that so they can get to a point where they can…be more proactive in terms of outlining a strategy.
Herold: How much demand is there among parents for these high-performing seats?
Gleason: The majority of families in Philadelphia wish they had more high-quality school options…
Parents are definitely frustrated. They don’t understand, why, if we have examples of schools that are really good, why we can’t have more of them.
Herold: What is the landscape in Philadelphia right now for charter school operators?
Gleason: Philadelphia is a paradox. It is one of the cities that most aggressively embraced charters when the movement got going 15 or so years ago. Today, we have more than 80 charter schools. About one quarter of the public school enrollment in the city is in charter schools, which is pretty near the top of the list for large cities in America…
However, it’s been a number of years since the city has issued any new charters. There’s been a clamp down…
What we have is a system where charter operators who have done a really good job have been limited in their ability to grow the number of students they serve, and so that’s created a lot of frustration.
Herold: What do you hear from operators of high-performing charters who want to expand but can’t?
Gleason: The biggest frustration is that the District has not been clear about the process for applying, getting decisions, and knowing why or why not a request for expansion has been approved. There’s a deep perception among charter CEO’s that the District has changed the rules year after year to fit their fiscal situation at that particular moment in time. So it’s hard for charter schools to plan, it’s hard for them to know when they’re going to get answers from the District.
Herold: How do you think the city and District should be operating with regard to expanding the number and size of high-performing charter schools in Philadelphia?
Gleason: Ideally, you could channel students and dollars out of programs and schools that…are not getting the job done. We have plenty of those in Philadelphia, so those are really taxpayer dollars that are being wasted. The goal should be to move those tax dollars and those kids into better-performing schools, better-performing programs, so that taxpayers are getting a better return on their investment and we’re getting a better-educated citizenry as a long term result.
To the extent that we have high-performing schools in the city, be they traditional District schools, magnet schools, [or] charter schools, we should be looking at ways to expand their capacity to serve more kids so that we can pull kids out of schools that have consistently not been effective in educating students.
Herold: What are some of the concerns about trying to help charter schools expand more?
Gleason: The main one we hear about is the cost, because that’s what we hear from the District. Certainly, the teachers’ union has concerns about charter schools because they cut into employment for their members who work for traditional District schools. Those are probably the two biggest issues.
You also hear criticisms that charter schools as a group have not been demonstrated to be any more effective than traditional public schools as a group. There’s a ton of data out there, none of it very conclusive on this point.
Herold: What about the concern that expanding charters weakens the District’s ability to serve its own students?
Gleason: For that analysis to be true, then [before] charter schools, the District would have had to have been firing on all cylinders, and clearly it was not. This was a District that the state felt compelled to take over because of a lack of performance and because it felt like it wasn’t being financially well managed in the late 1990s. So I don’t think that argument holds any water.
It is true that in cities that have been very aggressive about charter school expansion, in some case there has been a lack of focus on traditional district schools, and they have really lagged. That’s something we have to watch out for in Philadelphia. But there are cities where that has not been the case. New York City is probably the best example.
You can do both well. What’s happened in Philadelphia…is that people get bogged down in this charter-District tension, which is really a problem, because it takes focus away from what you should be concentrating on, which is how you make both kinds of schools better.
Herold: Is there enough capacity and money in the District right now to facilitate the growth of high-performing charters and also maintain a high level of functioning in the hundreds of District schools?
Gleason: The School District has almost a $3-billion budget, which is a ton of money…. The challenge for the District is to suck as much cost [as possible] out of that system that’s not yielding results. There’s got to be a lot of it. If you can stop spending money on stuff that isn’t working, that’s where you can free up the money to spend on what is working or what can work…
I think the big first step, which the District has just taken by hiring this restructuring firm and bringing in a Chief Recovery Officer, is to dramatically look at how can we reshape the bureaucracy of our system so that it costs less and channels more money out to schools. The goal is to get more money into the classroom.
Herold: What would you say to those who are concerned that there might a public good that is getting lost in all this?
Gleason: I think high-performing schools, no matter who the provider, are a vital part of communities…
Charter schools are public schools… We have to get beyond this idea that charter schools are somehow taking away from the public sector. They are part of the public sector.
Herold: A new policy brief from Temple University’s Metropolitan Philadelphia Indicators Project looks at how charters have tended to locate on commercial corridors rather than in the heart of neighborhoods. The authors make the argument that the growth of charters is contributing to a severing of the connection between schools and neighborhoods. What is your take on that?
Gleason: I think it’s a valid point…One of the objectives of the compact is for charter growth to become part of the overall conversation about educational planning in the city. And so one of the models I think you’ll see happen in the future is charters will be allowed to expand in exchange for an agreement to primarily take students from a catchment area, so you end up with more of a neighborhood sort of school…
The opportunity is to coordinate planning between District and charter operators so you can identify those neighborhoods where we want to have an anchor…We need a more coordinated conversation to make sure we have coverage throughout the city.
Herold: A Great Schools Compact Committee has already begun having that conversation. Why aren’t parents, teachers, and advocates for traditional public schools involved in those discussions?
Gleason: They’re not at the table because this is really about the internal workings of schools. I think there’s some confusion in that larger community that the compact committee is a policy-making body. It’s not. The School Reform Commission remains the policy-making body…They are the ones who are responsible and accountable to the public…
We’re asking charter school people and District people to put all their cards on the table, the reasons why they’ve made certain decisions. And in some cases, that’s information that doesn’t belong in the public sector yet, because it’s work product. It’s not a recommendation and it’s not a policy yet.
Herold: Allow me to play devil’s advocate to the notion that the compact committee is not setting policy. Because you have two members of the SRC on the committee, it stands to reason for many that whatever comes out of the committee is likely going to be approved by the SRC, whether or not the public has had its chance to really weigh in.
Gleason: The responsibility lies with the SRC to make sure the adequately give the public opportunity to provide input on things they’re going to vote on…It’s certainly not the intention of the compact that stuff is going to get fast-tracked behind closed doors and come up for a vote without public consideration.
Herold: That’s not what you see happening now?
Gleason: No. What we’re doing now is very early stage work…we’re trying to identify those areas where we think the District and the charter schools have the most potential for collaboration that could be mutually productive.
Herold: It seems as though one objective of the compact committee is to find ways to make District facilities more accessible to charter operators. Is it as simple as that?
Gleason: Facilities is a big question because the District has lots of empty buildings, or underutilized buildings. We’re going to be surveying schools about their level of interest in occupying those buildings….
There’s a potentially mutual benefit. The District wants to shed some of the cost associated with these underutilized buildings, and charter schools are actively acquiring or leasing buildings as they expand…
One of the things we’re hoping will come out of the compact is [determining] if there’s a win-win here where charter operators can start to occupy some of these unused District buildings…It makes sense to have a taxpayer-financed school located in a taxpayer owned building.
Herold: Accountability appears to be another key conversation being had by the compact committee. What’s happening on that front?
Gleason: Right now, District and charter schools are measured annually on the School Performance Index…There have been a lot of complaints from charters about the formula, about the way the various components of that formula are weighted.
From my perspective, a lot of those complaints are really rooted in the fact that the District built a pretty solid instrument with the SPI, but did a poor job of communicating how it was built. There was a lot misinformation and perceived lack of transparency in the charter community. So we’ve tried to work through some of that.
One of the tasks the compact committee has taken on is to recommend to the SRC some improvements in the accountability framework. Right now, the committee is gathering information, trying to get a sense of…what are the frustrations with the current instrument. We’re also talking to some experts in the field about what are other cities using, how does that differ from what we’re doing, what are the statistical weaknesses and strengths of what we’ve got here. So we’re really at a fact-finding stage.
Herold: It appears to some to be a conflict of interest for charter operators to be shaping potential changes to the measure that is used to hold them accountable.
Gleason: The District is very much involved. And part of the problem with SPI the way it is today is that charter operators were not enough part of the conversation when it was first developed…
We took the mayor and some SRC members to Denver in early January on a learning expedition. One of the things we learned there is they have a very similar accountability framework in Denver that was developed largely by the charters with District input. As a result, the charters have embraced that instrument much differently than they have here in Philadelphia.
Herold: Talk to me about the strategies that are being discussed right now for how the District can replicate its own high-performing schools.
Gleason: We’re trying to push the District to think about how can you expand the number of students you serve in some of your other kinds of high-performing schools. They’re very interested in that topic, but I’m not sure how far along they are, honestly.
You just saw a report…about the promise that is being seen in the Promise Academy turnaround model that the District is using. I expect we’ll hear more about that in the coming months.
Herold: From the outside, it’s confusing. You look at a District-run school E.M. Stanton that is high-performing and doing well, and it’s actually targeted for closure. Doesn’t that play into the skepticism that the Compact is a vehicle for charters, but not for District schools?
Gleason: Stanton is an interesting case. It’s a high-performing school, has a very loyal and passionate parent community. However, it’s a money loser for the District. Enrollment is under 250 students, the building is expensive and inefficient to maintain.
[PSP is] not really a central party in that conversation, but we’ve been pushing the idea that a school is not just the building it sits in. What really makes a school is the leadership of the school, the culture of the school, parent engagement in the school…
The challenge here is don’t close an asset for the wrong reasons. The opportunity is to find a building, find a situation, where that school can continue to thrive and serve more students. Is there a building nearby where you can make that school 350 or 400 students, which is a more efficient size for the District to operate, but keep the culture, keep the leadership team, keep the staff, keep the parent engagement?
A successful school is the sum of many ingredients. We have to get away from the notion that it’s these four walls that define what a school is.
Herold: Do you think the District has the capacity to make that kind of solution happen?
Gleason: On its own, no. That’s why we formed PSP.
The community has to own this kind of problem, at the end of the day. The business community, the philanthropic community, the parent community – these are our schools. We all have to own this together.
The SRC are the people who have been chosen to lead the effort, but they’re just five people who have day jobs. We have to support them, push them, hold them accountable when they make decisions for the wrong reasons, and make clear to them what our expectation is: that you’ll find a way to make a high-performing school continue to exist.
Herold: How do you think the city is going to look different in five years as the result of all the changes that are percolating up now?
Gleason: I think you will see a much smaller central office. You will see schools having more autonomy over the way they run the school and how they spend the dollars that go to that school. I think you will see more schools being closed that are considered chronically failing…and I think you will see more aggressive expansion of some of the higher performing charter schools. I think you will finally see some more new charter schools coming online. But I also think you will see the District aggressively look to expand in some of the District’s higher performing schools, or replicating those models…
What we hope is that across both sectors, there is going to be a proliferation of different school models that are high-performing.