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Commentary: Film perpetuates myths about education

By the Notebook on Oct 12, 2012 02:30 PM

This guest blog comes from Ken Derstine, an award-winning retired teacher who spent 37 years in the Philadelphia School District, and is now a political activist on behalf of public education. The Notebook invites guest blog posts on current topics in Philadelphia education from its readers. Contact us at to make a submission.

by Ken Derstine

On Monday, Oct. 8, Helen Gym of Parents United for Public Education and Matthew Brouillette of the Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg discussed "parent trigger" laws on WHYY-FM’s Radio Times. Brouillette repeated the familiar but flawed argument now favored by corporate education reformers: bad teachers, not the conditions that policymakers force teachers to work under, produce “bad schools.”  

As I see it, there are two myths that continue to gain traction despite contrary evidence and experience. They are the Bad School, Bad Teacher myth, and the “We tried throwing money at education, and it didn’t work” myth. Defenders of public education must continue to debunk them both.

Bad School, Bad Teacher myth: Most teachers in schools with low test scores are trying under adverse circumstances to teach their students. The corporate reformers say a good teacher can overcome the effects of poverty on low-income students AND do it with fewer resources than wealthier school districts. They make this argument even though research and data show that schools that rise above the effects of concentrated poverty remain the exception, not the rule. 

"We tried throwing money at education, and it didn't work" myth: Proponents of the “no excuses” school reform movement say that the income level of a student population is irrelevant; ergo, we shouldn’t “throw money” into schools that educate mostly low-income students. This is a clever way of justifying the failure to provide these schools with equitable funding. In my view, No Child Left Behind ostensibly meant to draw attention to achievement gaps so that something could be done about them. It has instead become a justification for continued inequitable funding: highlighting low test scores in most high-poverty schools, and blaming this on the people in those schools rather than on the unequal and inadequate resources that the schools receive.

I would argue that nothing has changed in education policy since the days of racial segregation by law, except now the segregation is more subtly achieved and is done by class rather than by ethnicity alone. The corporate reform movement that brought us charter schools in the name of parental choice has led to a situation where students who are a little better off and come from more stable homes are segregated from students who come from more dire, unstable situations due to low wages and unemployment. These students are left in the underfunded regular system, further concentrating the effects of poverty.

"Won't Back Down," a film about parent trigger laws, was produced by the same people who gave us the pro-charter documentary “Waiting for Superman." Parent trigger laws have been promoted by the free-market, limited-government American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in legislatures all over the country. They promote the myth that parents overcome problems in their schools by taking them over. But the few times that school takeovers have been tried, they were orchestrated by pro-charter organizations. What the movie does not show is that after the parents take over, the corporate reformers move in and the parents become their customers.

Another consequence of the parent trigger is that it diverts parents from the issue of full funding for public education, sending them instead down the dead end of promoting privatization.

Defenders of public education are not defenders of the status quo, as Mr. Brouillette claims, but instead defenders of equal and equitable funding for all schools, regardless of the circumstances of each school's students. This requires much accuracy in the empirical information we use to show the truth. On Radio Times Mr. Brouillette misstated the amount of per-student funding available to Philadelphia students as $17,000, when the reality is closer to $14,000. He later acknowledged the mistake, but his error shows that he clearly wasn’t interested in nailing down the facts to bolster his argument before making it on the radio.  

Those of us interested in quality, equitable education for all need to keep attacking these two myths. We should never stop questioning the basic assumptions that urban schools are filled with "Bad Teachers" and that money and resources don’t matter. We know they are not true. All we have to do is look at where many purveyors of these myths put their own children in school and what resources they have!

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Comments (73)

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on October 12, 2012 4:29 pm

Thanks Ken. As usual, your commentary is right on the mark.

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Submitted by Frank Murphy on October 12, 2012 4:00 pm


Well-said Ken.  The aim of corporate reformers is to tear down public education.  They are not defenders of the equal rights of every child in our society.

Those of us who believe that a free and equal public education is the entitlement of every child, I suppose are defenders of the status quo.  And the status quo we support is called democracy.  

Submitted by Joe (not verified) on October 12, 2012 7:06 pm

Frank--Exactly to the point. These "reformers" are all about making the already rich, richer at the direct expense of the poor. Where were they BEFORE a buck could be made on the backs of the poor children. They didn't give a rat's then nor now, just making money, first, last and only.

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on October 12, 2012 8:43 pm


You make very good points. Anyone who has ever worked in a high-poverty school in Philadelphia or another large city knows that high-poverty is a proxy term for the overall condition of life of the children attending the school. In high-poverty neighborhoods, the economic instability of poverty undermines the family structure. Less stable families means more issues for kids in terms of coming to school unprepared to learn. Poverty is intricately tied in with race in our country. The condition of inner city neighborhoods is not an accident. In African American neighborhoods, the history of inequality and racism has helped create the "code of the streets." See the excellent article of the same name by sociologist Elijah Anderson at

The research is clear that poverty is detrimental to the well-being of children (,, Anyone living in Philadelphia knows that the poorest areas are often the areas with the highest crime. High-crime neighborhoods are detrimental to children.

The "code of the street" predisposes children in crime-prone neighborhoods to fight first and think later, a mentality detrimental to a good learning environment. Some parents teach their children to fight and defend themselves because this is a survival skill. This comes from living in high-crime neighborhoods with a street culture. There's a subset of kids in the Philadelphia neighborhood schools who are out of control and whose anger and fighting threatens the safety of children and adults in the school. These children need help--anger management, counseling, stability, etc. because their environment predisposes them to fighting. A teacher can only do so much for these students. The environmental factors here are very strong. Teachers cannot be held responsible for the upbringing of children in the home and the neighborhood.

The children who come from unstable homes and who have anger management issues and predisposition to fighting need extra supports. What happens when schools do more with less is that teachers and staff end up paying money out of pocket for expenses that the school should cover. Also, the extra supports that children need, such as an additional social worker in the school, go unmet and the unresolved issues permeate the classrooms. This places additional stress on teachers who already are underpaid and deal with many behavior problems in the classroom.

People don't want to talk about poverty because it's a thorny issue. It has ties to racism and white privilege and these are uncomfortable issues for people to discuss. Money does matter. If it didn't matter, rich people would not have a problem sending their children to school with poor children and "other people's children."

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 14, 2012 5:16 am

Should this subset of kids who are out of control be removed from neighborhood schools while being helped with anger management, counseling, etc.?

I'm no ed phd, but this subset needs a completely different school environment to progress. Some place with a tighter disciplinary approach, different staff, rules for engagement.

This is such a common sense. It benefits troublemakers and mainstream kids alike. Certainly seems it would make teachers lives easier. Why doesn't the union support this sort change?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 14, 2012 7:26 am

Where did you hear or read that the Union wouldn't support it? It's not the teachers or teacher's Union that fails to support that idea. We have been screaming for years that the 99% of students who come to school each day and work hard to get their education are being held hostage to the 1% who come soley to disrupt the education process, The hold up is at the SRC's, District and State levels who are scared to death of lawsuits, because state laws stipulate that neighborhoods schools MUST take ALL comers who live within their borders. Students in a public, neighborhood school have to just about commit a murder within the school to get the District to even "Consider", "possibly" expelling or re-assigning a student who needs more help than the neighborhood schools and staff can provide--and even then they will most likely blame the teachers for the student's actions

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 14, 2012 9:50 am

Actually this was a real question regarding the unions position, not a rhetorical point. This seems like such an obvious answer to a huge problem. The Inquirer won a Pulitzer for covering this issue yet the district seems inert in doing anything.

Seems like the union could really help here- push back onerous state regs on public schools. But I never hear of any such effort.

I hear complaints that it is unfair that charters are able to remove chronic disciplinary problems, but the implication seems to be they should be prevented from doing so, rather than that the public schools should be put on the same playing field, and able to offer alternatives to chronic behavioral problems.

Submitted by K.R. Luebbert on October 14, 2012 9:04 am

The union does not prevent the removal of chronic disciplinary problems from schools, the Philadelphia School District does that! I feel confident in saying that the union would support programs that remove children who disrupt class and harm others from schools. They would also support programs for these students that help them and their families deal with the myriad issues that cause their problems. The District discipline policies veer wildly from too lenient to overly strict. The result is no consistency and no real way to help students who disrupt or their victims. Those of us in traditional public schools simply want the rules and procedures to be similar for ALL schools that use public money.

Submitted by Joan Taylor on October 14, 2012 6:08 pm

It is only in urban school districts that unions have to bargain for student rights like class size and discipline interventions. In better financed districts, the local school board, whose children attend the public schools, considers these issues. It should not have to be the union's job to fight for responsible treatment of our students, but in underfunded districts like ours, it's one more burden that somehow gets dumped on us.

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Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 12, 2012 11:09 pm


I would love to see a list of corporate reformers and the schools they send their children to. Probably would not surprise anyone.

Lisa Haver

Submitted by Ken Derstine on October 14, 2012 5:21 pm

Lisa, such information would be hard to come by, but this list of the top 100 private schools in the Philadelphia region and their tuition tells you what those who have means are willing to pay to have the resources and class sizes that all children should have.

Submitted by Mister Tibbs (not verified) on October 13, 2012 6:36 am

As a staunch supporter of quality public education I am compelled to ask...which came first; a notion by corporate reformers that a good teacher can overcome the effects of poverty on low-income students AND do it with fewer resources than wealthier school districts...or, a a number of schools unable to "fix" themselves, drowning in a toxic climate, udergirded by a few bad teachers (and principals, building engineers, counselors, etc) who do more harm than good to impoverished students, routinely?

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on October 13, 2012 8:16 am

Which of those myths that you just stated would you like me to address first? The last sentence is particularly stomach turning because it is so much part of "The Big Lie."

Toxic school climates are caused purely by the management of the school and the principal who is imposed upon the school, not bad teachers as ideologues would like us to believe. In my book, Whose School Is It? The Democratic Imperative for Our Schools, I wrote a chapter entitled "Torch -- Rebellion and Toxic School Cultures" wherein I discussed the actual research on toxic school cultures and discussed my actual experience working within a toxic school climate.

That chapter discusses how University City H.S. descended into a toxic climate and how it was then turned around. It was turned around when the teachers "rebelled" and the principal was removed. Dr. James Lytle, commonly known to his friends as "Torch," was put in as Uni's principal.

Torch turned the climate completely around by leading an inclusive, shared leadership approach and instilling a "teacher empowerment model" at the school. University City H.S. then became the leader of the Small Learning Community movement in Philadelphia.

What the teachers built were programs that actually met the needs of their students. They were the first school in Philadelphia to implement intensive scheduling like many of the suburban schools had done.

Torch became the Superintendent of Trenton's Schools when their school board president visited Uni and was amazed at the positive school climate there at that time and asked Torch to go to Trenton as their Superintendent.

Then, Paul Vallas, the great destroyer of things, came to Philly and destroyed everything they had built by eliminating their magnet programs and eliminating their intensive scheduling because they cost too much money. He imposed a principal who managed by "threat and intimidation" and sure enough, the climate at Uni went right back into toxicity.

That principal was also removed and a new principal was put in place. A reconstitution process was imposed and I do believe the climate under the new principal has improved. I have read and I have heard through the grapevine that things are much improved there, including their test scores.

The point is that Uni at times was a wonderful school and wonderful place to work. It was also at times a troubled school. The climate of the school was directly correlational to the quality of the leadership of the school.

I assure you the main ingredient is a competent, collaborative, caring principal along with a few really Great teachers, and of course, counselors and support staff.

Submitted by Mister Tibbs (not verified) on October 13, 2012 11:10 am

Rich, Thank you for restating what I said in more positive terms... "the main ingredient is a competent, collaborative, caring principal along with a few really Great teachers, and of course, counselors and support staff." We are in complete agreement that it takes every staff member inside of school walls to create an effective, safe learning environment.

Sad that a “rebellion” must take place in some schools before it becomes a viable teaching and learning institution. In far too many schools the teaching staff and principal remain in a stand off--the old us against them mentality that prevents a collaborative focus on a teaching and learning organization. It's as if they are unable to recognize the detriment this mentality is and has been to themselves, students, and entire school community. They are unable to envision a place where everyone works together to support learning for themselves and students. So, they hide behind the daily fight/blame game. It's the easy way out.

In a school embedded with toxic attitudes and beliefs a strong principal can work with a few excellent teachers to turn things around. This sort of action takes 3-5 years. Sadly, we have run out of time.

As always, more questions than answers; in some cases is reconstitution a viable solution/starting point to begin the "rebellion"?

Thank you intellectually stimulating, thought provoking dialogue. BTW: In addition to reading your book, I've had the pleasure of speaking directly with Torch about the turn around and UCHS along with reading his book, "Working for Kids."

Submitted by Eileen DiFranco (not verified) on October 13, 2012 11:07 am

Great article, Ken! Rich hit the nail on the head when he spoke of the beneficial and adverse effects principals can have on schools. Roxborough High has experienced a complete turn around under our current principal, Stephen Brandt. Although charter schools such as Mastery Gratz continue to receive adulation, not one word has been written about our resurrection at Roxborough. Mostly the same teachers, mostly the same kids, new principal and voila!! a different school. All of those underperforming seats result from underperforming principals. Shephard School has proven this without a shadow of a doubt. There are others like Stephen Brandt out there working in our schools. The SD should find them, groom them, and appoint them rather than spending millions of dollars on an outside Boston Group that, to borrow the words of Rev. Waller at Enon, "Don't know or speak Philly." Like Lisa Haver, I too would like to know where all the "reformers" children attend school. And just as an aside, our governor spent millions of dollars on pushing the voter ID law. How did he ever find the money when the State is so broke? Those millions could have gone into something substantive, like our schools.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 14, 2012 4:21 am

How would your discovery that "Reformers" send their kids to high-end private schools undercut their argument?

What does it mean to be ruled by people who, "Speak Philly".

Is that what I want my kids to aspire to? As if Philly government is a beacon to high standards of integrity, competence, decency or other meritorious values...

I guess the difference between the reformers and most parents in philly who also want the best for their kids is that the reformers have the personal resources to flee from schools that are managed according to the the lowest-common-denominator principles of Philly politics.

Good for the reformers that they want to help others less fortunate to have some choice as well.

Submitted by eileen difranco (not verified) on October 15, 2012 1:01 pm

Wealthy people who do not have to worry about their pay stubs, health insurance or the schools their own children attend are the ones who are making decisions for those who do have to worry about those things. Very few politicians on any level are average Joes and Janes. Many are millionaires. So, yes, it makes a great difference where the so called "reformers" send their own children attend school. They do not know what they are talking about. They refer to children as "portfolios" to be managed rather than as children who need to be educated. As for "talking Philly," I "talk Philly" all the time because I want what's best for the children of the city. I live and work here. Jeremy Nowalk and the Boston Group do not talk Philly. They talk bottom line. Nowalk admitted that he didn't speak to one PHila. stakeholder before coming up with his plan. This is what I mean about "talking Philly."

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 16, 2012 5:40 am

The bottom line is your side is trying to take choice away from parents.

Attacking the "reformers" because they are wealthier than the average Philadelphia resident is just a lame attempt at distracting from your goal of eliminating options parents value. For your own benefit.

Btw, you know who else is much wealthier than the average Philadelphia resident? Just about everyone working for the school district, from the part-time bus drivers on up the chain.

Your logic is so obviously broken: rich people can't make decisions because they don't worry about "paystubs, etc. But neither can poor people since they have too these economic concerns are so much more pressing than their kids' education. So the only people who can make decisions about my kid or the schools he attends are *SURPRISE* the bureaucrats of 401N Broad St. That is the way you've had it for over 40 years now and the results speak for themselves.

Anyone with a brain knows "Talking Philly" in this context meant politicians using their control to distribute favors to interest groups. It had nothing to do with seeking what is best for children. How does paying a $40mm a year premium to the SEIU for SUPPORT SERVICES help the children? That was a main BCG message. Philly still spends $40mm a year to payoff an interest group who returns the favor by calling out sick 20% of the time. That's about what's good for the children... Repeating a big lie doesn't make it true.

Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on October 16, 2012 9:47 am

So are we really being given choice?

I agree with Ms. DiFranco that the key to a good school is a good principal (not a screened student body), and I prefer my kids be exposed to a diversity of other kids (Special Ed included). (A good principal can fire those who call out sick 20% btw.) Roxborough H.S. offers (thanks to the new principal) new music programs and community resources it did not have before. It is not judged to be a "great school" because it has been a neighborhood school (no special admit requirements) for so many years and the test scores are not high; however because of this new principal, it has definitely become student focused.

I don't think school "churn" amounts to school choice. Though there's a long way to go, having a "third party" lobbying tool (as the Notebook attempts to provide) is a much better way to implement what "choice" is supposed to implement. How do we know who are the good principals, and how can we improve or replace the bad ones? Churning will take care of some, but not all, and it will be at great cost to the public, the students, and the families (yes, we could've used the BCG fee for resources instead).

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 17, 2012 6:44 am

I would rather be involved in a school where I can make a difference than dealing with bureaucrats and political hacks at 401 N Broad.

Would I bet my kids education future on my "lobbying" recourse, especially in a political cesspool like Philly. Not in a million years. Maybe I should also start lobbying the Vatican to reconsider their views on birth control while in the meantime just hoping for the best. Seriously.

The whole point of central control bureaucracy is to limit alternatives and provide consistent policy. Why would I beat my head against the wall pretending that lobbying such an entity will have any impact whatsoever?

There is no real choice unless you can pick a school outside managed outside of the bureaucracy. Nor should anyone have faith in a system that seeks to avoid any accountability by forcing parents into schools they don't believe in.

Submitted by Concerned Phila. (not verified) on October 17, 2012 8:20 am

What makes a school "good" is debatable. One of my children attends a small Philadelphia magnet high school. The school always makes AYP and has a high rating on the "Great Schools" site. It is also a school where far too many teachers do little more than have students read from a textbook and answer questions. Some teachers also love to lecture. Assessments are primarily multiple choice tests with scan trons. There appears to be little real learning that stretches the mind or considers alternatives. Not all teachers will respond to emails. Most teachers do not use an on-line grade book. The "Great School" site tells me nothing about pedagogical practices, providing students with a range of experiences, schools partnerships, clubs/extra curricular, etc.

What determines a "good" to "great" school is much more complicated than 4 or 5 self reported data with one standardized test score.

Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on October 17, 2012 9:13 am

And in the uncertainty and movement of the kids to a supposedly better charter, likely with less resources (check out instrumental music instruction), you lose valuable time with no guarantees.

Your point about a "central control bureaucracy" is a good one. There is a benefit however to standardization that must not be lost in all this scrambling for "choice". School Based Administration (at the heart of the charter reform movement), opens the door to such variations in teaching that it becomes difficult to discern which techniques are truly effective. This is not necessarily bad, but makes it harder to justify greater public funding. I would probably jump on the SBA bandwagon if it were not for the work I did lobbying to keep the central administration of the Instrumental Music program when it was threatened with Weighted Student Funding (based on SBA). One must be careful about what all the rhetoric actually means.

Within the bureaucracy there exist gems of management. This "lobbying" is about getting this info (where and who the good managers are) out to other parents. Why do you need to keep reinvesting capital resources at a cost to the public? "Choice" already exists in the bureaucracy. I agree 100% with you on the value of being able to participate meaningfully at a school, and I have beat my head against the system (just try holding the SDP accountable for Title I), only to be attacked personally... so you have an uncontested point there; however, I don't see that starting something anew necessarily equates to good management/my guaranteed participation (you still need a "third party",like the BBB for the "free market"). I found a few good teachers (at a frankly miserably/abseentee managed school) that I was able to work with. We worked out a cooperative arrangement for my oldest to start taking high school classes while still in 8th grade. In the meantime his entire class benefited from peer tutoring from kids that had not been pulled out because their "uptight" parents were solely concerned about themselves. The class (though not the school) made AYP that year.

Can you give some examples of schools that you "don't believe in" that parents are forced into? Mastery Charter seems to be having success with highly scripted curriculum. Other charters (Chester Community for example) aren't much different in their basic approach. Chester Community is also notorious for spending 40% of its funding on cleverly diverted management fees. Speaking of which (a little off subject, but relevant), if I take the calculated $14,000 per child that PSD is funded, and then see that the range is $5,500 to $12,000, roughly $9000 that is acutally spent (looking at individual school budgets) that is then about 36% that goes to management, transportation, and bureaucratic costs. Well, though that is too much, that is still better than 40%, and the "waste" is not going to one person's isolated castle and swimming pool... to the best of my knowledge, union workers do not live in castles.

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Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on October 13, 2012 1:38 pm

The destruction of neighborhood high schools happened when Vallas doubled the number of special admit schools. Instead of investing in programs in neighborhood schools, programs were taken out. The only school with programs left in tact were Northeast and Washington HSs. Now, the SDP is going to close neighborhood high schools. Instead of handing them over to Mastery and Universal, why not invest in the neighborhood high schools? Return the special programs so there is a reason to go to neighborhood high schools. If Northeast and Washington can have internal magnet programs, why not Frankford, Furness, Univ City, West, etc? Instead, neighborhood high schools have become schools of last resorts with high percentage of students with an IEP, behavioral issues and ELLs.

Submitted by Joan Taylor on October 13, 2012 9:16 am

Ah, the voice of reason. I hope we hear from you often, Ken.

Submitted by K.R. Luebbert on October 13, 2012 11:07 am

All great points, Ken! School funding has never been equitable--especially when you consider the word/and enrichment deficit some poor children are starting out with. Money put into fighting poverty and funding early childhood programs could help all levels of education immensely.

Submitted by Anne Gemmell (not verified) on October 13, 2012 12:14 pm

Ken offers great advice for those interested in pushing back against privatization. The more unified & focused the message, the greater our chances for success. Yet, it remains defensive. This article is excellent because it offers succinct language to de-bunk the myths so a more offensive message could be sent out in this war of words. For example, why are we wasting so much district & community energy closing 40 schools ( wreaking havoc) to save a mere $35Million?? This is less than the interest paid from the district to bailed out banks, 1/3 of the swap fees and less than 10% of delinquent property taxes owed to our city. Wall St/ 1%/corporate greed vs. the protection of community & families is a frame for offensive messages we need to adopt.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 13, 2012 12:08 pm

You slam Brouillette for his error on school funding. That may be fair. But, if philly schools spend $14,000 per child and charters closer to $11,000 per child how is that fair. I know that the logical response would be that charters pay less than district teachers. Perhaps, but charters historically have much lower class sizes, in actuality they're paying less per teacher but more per student for teachers. Either way, the disparity in funding doesn't match.

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on October 13, 2012 1:58 pm

Charters like Mastery and Universal receive significant grant funding. The money they get from the SDP of less but they still have more to spend per pupil. (This is not true of all charters but certainly of Charter Corp. like Mastery and Universal. ) Just look at which programs are getting grant money from the Philadelphia Partnership? Mastery also has always received considerable Lenfest money. Universal is got a free ride from the SDP for a brand new building - Audenreid - and Vare. This year they are paying less than 1/3 of the cost to operate the building. Meanwhile, the SDP has neighborhood schools in buildings that are falling apart. Where is the equity?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 13, 2012 3:34 pm

Charters don't spend $11,000 per child. They receive an average amount from the district in terms of dollars. They may spend far more, or in some cases (see June Brown, Chester Community, Brian Gardner), far less in terms of instructional spending. Moreover, charters receive services from the district which are not accounted for: transportation for example. In some cases like Universal, charters get utilities, rent and facilities management services subsidized by the School District.

Charters are not standardized in any way shape or form. Every single charter is different. Charters are a form of governance. They do not in any way dictate a standardized practice of investment or spending in schools.

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on October 13, 2012 6:00 pm

Many charters also have fewer special education and ELL students than traditional public schools (TPSs). This is particularly true for charters using lotteries. This may account for the lower per-pupil spending. In addition, many charters spend considerably less on teachers because their teachers have lower salaries than TPS teachers with similar experience/credentials and because on average, the teachers at charters are often younger than teachers at TPSs in Philadelphia.

Submitted by Rebecca Poyourow on October 13, 2012 8:09 pm

Several reasons for this disparity:

(1) As other commenters have already noted, charters serve few children with special needs. $14,000 is an average per student figure--the funding required to provide a high needs child with an appropriate education is closer to $19,000. Traditional neighborhood public schools serve most of the children who need these services.

(2) Charters serve few English Language Learners, evading the expenses of putting together such programming as well.

(3) Charters are not responsible for funding the transportation that their own students use--that comes out of the regular public school budget.

(4) Charters do not have to provide early childhood education (pre-k), again avoiding an expense that traditional district schools incur.

(5) Charters are not required to provide low-income students with free or reduced price meals.

(6) Charters are not required to provide gifted educational programming.

Submitted by Annnoymous (not verified) on October 13, 2012 8:30 pm

No schools are required to provide so called "gifted" education in Pennsylvania. Segregating students based on so-called intellectual ability perpetuates class and racial divisions since the test given for so called "giftedness" is biased. It also makes no sense to determine if someone is "gifted" in 1st / 2nd grade and then pigeon hole them for the rest of their academic career.

Submitted by Rebecca Poyourow on October 14, 2012 12:00 am

Actually, my understanding (and I'm not an expert in this area) is that there is state legislation that gifted students K-12 be identified and served. However, this is a whole other kettle of fish. The main point is that there are many services traditional neighborhood schools are required to provide that make their costs higher than charter schools.

Submitted by ConcernedRoxParent (not verified) on October 15, 2012 9:39 am

You are correct!

Submitted by ConcernedRoxParent (not verified) on October 15, 2012 9:04 am

Gifted services are required just like special services for learning disabled students. Chapter 16 of PA Code 22

Submitted by Ken Derstine on October 13, 2012 9:49 pm

Here is another example of the inequality that exists in funding. Philadelphia Magazine recently published a list of The Top 100 Public Schools 2012. This was a ranking of high schools in Southeastern Pennsylvania and South New Jersey.

Nine schools in Philadelphia made the top 100. Masterman is first in the region, Central is 19th, Girard Academic Music Program is 35, Academy at Palumbo is 57, Bodine is 58, Creative and Performing Arts is 62, Science Leadership Academy is 65, Carver is 75, Girls is 81.

Look at annual Instructional Spending for these schools. With only a few exceptions Philadelphia schools are below everyone else in the region, sometimes by a great deal. (1st place Masterman - $6,516, 2nd place Lower Merion - $16,661)

Lest anyone say the top schools in Philadelphia are proof that Philadelphia schools can make do with less, Masterman and Central are magnet schools which draw top students from all over the city and have very strict admissions policies. Even they, however, have the low amount for Instructional Spending of all Philadelphia schools.

I'm sure the discussion will now be, if Philadelphia spends about $6,500 for Instructional Spending, where is the rest of the $14,000 per child going? Please don't say it is due to salaries, etc. Philadelphia has some of the lowest paid teachers in the region. I'm sure Lower Merion does not have lower salaries to make $16,661 for Instruction.

Also in the Philadelphia Magazine is rankings for Philadelphia Area Private Schools. The list does not give Instructional Spending, but the tuition and fees cost are revealing in what they show about what those who have the means are willing to pay because they know traditional schools will not have the resources and class sizes that private schools have.

Submitted by Eileen Duffey (not verified) on October 13, 2012 12:01 pm

Thanks Ken for you commitment public schoolss and all our children. In the years you taught computer classes next to my health room At Meredith School you earned my respect as an excellent teacher. My respect and admiration for you have only grown since you retired. In the past year your have shown your devotion to Philly students in your dogged investigation of the issues underlying the privatization of our schools. You do it in a way that has integrity. you never raise your voice. You command of the "big picture" is impressive.
Thanks to the notebook for featuring your blog today.
I recommend anyone interested in the messy business of the state of public education in Philadelphia listen closely to Ken Derstine.

Submitted by Ken Derstine on October 13, 2012 6:05 pm

Thank you for the kind words Eileen. They are much appreciated, but I am no different than thousands of teachers in Philadelphia and around the country who care about their students and are angry at how our public schools are being starved for a cynical political agenda. We have to stop waiting for Superman and realize we are the ones that must bring about the political change that is needed to create the schools our students deserve and need.

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on October 13, 2012 6:04 pm

5 Biggest Lies About America's Public Schools -- Debunked

The above article is very good reading.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 13, 2012 8:12 pm


Please consider the following in regards to your reply:

(1) Charter schools are required to serve and do serve special needs children (low and high incidence). Charters do not have the luxury of spreading costs for low incidence/high intensity students across multiple schools or create off shoot programs to handle the needs.

(2) Charters also serve ELL students. There are several traditional public schools with little to no ELL students.

(3) The district receives funding for transportation of charter students. In fact, Philadelphia received additional funds over and above for each child transported. This really has no bearing in this funding discussion.

(4) Charters do not receive early Pre-K funds (they are removed from the funding formula). Actually, early Pre-K students are added to the ADM calculation for the district, thereby decreasing per pupil funding for charters.

(5) Charters that provide food programs do provide for free and reduced lunch. Furthermore, the district makes money from food service of these students and also makes money from the charters that they provide lunch for.

(6) Charters do not have to honor the gifted IEP, but many, if not most provide additional program for students in that performance category.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 14, 2012 7:02 am

1) Some charters do have special education students as the rate overall is equivalent to SDP schools ( Some do not have ANY (June Brown's charters, most notably). As you noted, charters don't have the luxury of spreading out low incidence/high intensity special ed students. So, in many cases they serve only the former and not the latter, refusing to serve them or weeding them out through the application process
Some particularly nefarious charters, have found that they can significantly increase their funding if they can increase their low incidence (cheapest to serve special ed) numbers through increases in diagnosis, not it appears in increases in actual need.
"Special-education students make up an unusually large percentage of school enrollment - 26.7 percent last school year, well over the state average of 15.2 percent and Chester Upland's 21.3 percent. About 40 percent of special-needs students are identified with "speech or language impairments" - generally a mild disability; the state average is 16.2 percent.
The charter gets $25,528 for every special-education student from Chester Upland - more than 2.5 times the amount it gets for district regular education children. Critics question whether the school overidentifies special-needs students to get more money."
2) It is true, the charters in Philadelphia serve ELL students at a rate of 3.3% opposed to the district's average of 8.1%.
However, when charters specifically set up to serve immigrant populations are removed from the count, Philadelphia charters serve ELL students at a rate of LESS THAN 1%.
3) This claim is undocumented.
4) This claim is undocumented.
5) If I am following, you are upset that the SDP is hired by some charters to provide food and food services (not every charter has a disgusting virulently homophobic preacher leader with the hook-up to Marc Vetri, I guess) and charges the charters for their services. Are you upset when outside contractors are hired by charters to provide food and food services and charge more than their costs? The SDP really can't win: charter advocates are always saying the SDP should be run more like a business (like charters) but I guess only in matters related to SDP schools - when hired to provide services to charters the SDP should act as a charity!
6) This claim is undocumented.

Submitted by ConcernedRoxParent (not verified) on October 15, 2012 1:33 pm

1. They may say they provide the services, but they don't. For Example: Green Woods Charter School. Statistics show that Shawmont, Dobson and Cook -Wiss all have between 10 -20% of their student bodies with IEP's. Green Woods - NONE!

2. Again, Shawmont, Dobson and Cook-Wiss have between 1 - 3 % of their student body as ELL. Green Woods - NONE

3. The district does not get funding to provide these services to Charter Schools or parochial schools.

4. Pre-K should not be provide by the school district either, but that is my personal opinion.

5. They do not have to provide free or reduced lunch becasue none of the students are economically disadvanteaged. Again, using Roxborough: Shawmont, Dobson, Cook-Wiss - 55% - 60% of their student bodies are economically disadvantaged. Green-Woods - NONE

6. Why are they not required? It is a LAW!

Submitted by Ken Derstine on October 13, 2012 10:46 pm

Notice the parallels between what is happening in Chicago and what is being prepared in Philadelphia?

Charter networks being urged to take over troubled schools in city... Some sites that CPS plans to shut could become charter turnarounds.
from the Chicago Tribune - 10/11/12

"Chicago Public Schools officials have asked several charter networks if they would take over failing schools, for the first time making a direct connection between the city's plan to shut down neighborhood schools while increasing the number of privately run charters.

One of the charter networks approached by the district is the politically connected United Neighborhood Organization, which is "seriously considering" taking over troubled schools, said UNO Chief Executive Officer Juan Rangel.

"CPS is looking at charters to take a bigger bite of the school system," Rangel said.

In the past, CPS has tried to maintain distance between school closings and the addition of privately run but publicly funded charter schools, taking measures that included keeping a school building closed for a year or longer before approving a charter campus for the site.

But that could change as the district struggles to deal with a deficit that could reach $1 billion next year, while considering how to go about closing anywhere from 80 to 120 under enrolled or poorly performing schools.

If the charter networks agree to take over troubled schools the district wants to turn around, students are expected to remain in those schools. That could make the politically perilous matter of shutting down neighborhood schools more palatable in the predominantly African-American neighborhoods that figure to be hardest hit."

For the full article see:

(This article is posted on Substance News. If you want to get the article directly from the Chicago Tribune you must do their free registration.)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 14, 2012 4:15 am

This is the go-to position for maintenance of the status quo. Cite the lack of equitable and/or sufficient funding as an excuse for not imposing any accountability.

The beauty of this argument to the status quo is that it these preconditions will never be met. Therefore, no accountability or change can ever be imposed.

The issues of funding and governance are completely separate. Let's agree that schools are underfunded.

It doesn't follow that therefore the status quo should remain unchallenged, that no governance changes should be attempted, that no improvement is possible without extra funding. And it certainly doesn't follow that an urban ed style central bureaucracy is the best way to run schools, that parental choice needs to be limited.

Whether more funding is warranted (and let's agree it is), we should also agree that there is no level of funding that will satisfy the status-quo defenders.

There position is an ideological belief in monopoly control over the system- specifically the status quo right to be free from any real competition or accountability.

This go-to argument is a logical fallacy and a strawman. It always has been, but it has been repeated since the early 80's during which time educational funding soared and outcomes did not. Parents and taxpayers are becoming wise to the game here.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 14, 2012 10:11 am

Teaching Vacancies! Please check the Philadelphia School District's Vacancy list. Due to the leveling process, there are positions available for LS/English, GR teachers and others. Apply ASAP as positions fill quickly!

Submitted by Darren J (not verified) on October 14, 2012 11:08 am

In parentheses, next to some of the vacancies, they have "teacher to be released." What does that mean?

Submitted by Annnoymous (not verified) on October 14, 2012 11:45 am

It usually means the teacher has another position which is temporary. The teacher might be on special assignment (e.g. Central or regional office job). It also might mean the school has a School Improvement Grant and has released time (e.g. free periods) so someone else has to teach his/her class(es).

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 14, 2012 9:25 pm

These "new hires" will be at the absolute BOTTOM of the seniority list, so when the district closes 40 schools this year, they will all be laid off.

Submitted by Annnoymous (not verified) on October 15, 2012 3:47 am

Seniority might be lost in the next contract. There are no guarantees of anything anymore.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 14, 2012 4:09 pm

There are serious systemic flaws that preclude improvement regardless of money invested. The inclusive classroom is one. Students who are 3-4 years below level cannot succeed in the classroom. Students who are mentally ill, aggressive, and chronically disruptive prevent other students in the classroom from learning. Those students' rights are highly represented. The rights of the other 98% of students are secondary. Teachers are solely responsible for students' failure. Teachers are discouraged from failing students who are not performing well enough to be passed. Failing a child is a bureaucratic nightmare. There is NO parent accountability. Parents do not have to attend Back to School nights, report card conferences, or even provide up-to-date contact information to schools, and the schools have no recourse. PA has one of the latest mandatory school entry ages in the country. It is near impossible to completely make up early childhood educational deficits. Differentiation is being pushed as a substitute for special education. Classroom teachers are being pushed to act as special ed teachers. And nobody is mentioning the profound impulsivity and lack of self control among many of our students. How much instructional time is wasted trying to calm a room full of students who are out of their seats or shouting over each other? Would additional funding help as far as providing classroom supports and additional resources? Absolutely. But it would not be sufficient to turn the situation around.

Submitted by Joan Taylor on October 15, 2012 6:29 am

We know what distinguishes our lowest-performing students from our other students, and that is poverty. Study after study, many cited here, demonstrates that.

I wish the answer was as simple as a parent trigger law. Boy, it would be great if a few passionate parents--and every school has some--could turn a school around. Sadly, this is not so. Poverty is insidious in its destructiveness, and its effects upon our poorest children can't be overturned by either a few feisty parents--or by teaching to a test. These kids need individualized support. They need real relationships with caring adults who have time to build the connections that enable these kids to trust enough to be open to the frustrations that inevitably beset all students.

These are the kids charter schools, by and large, aren't going to let into their doors. I understand why--doing so won't do anything for their test scores or their bottom lines, but we should all understand that this is indeed the case if we are to discuss public education honestly.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 15, 2012 5:11 am

BRAVO Joan! You said it all...this is so very true. How can we share this message with EVERYONE? This is the work...trying to support children and families that have so very many challenges due to POVERTY! The layers are deep and the scars last a lifetime. :(

Submitted by Frank Murphy on October 15, 2012 9:51 am


I worked in high poverty schools for most of my professional career.   It was a challenging yet rewarding way of life. I always had the good fortune during this time to find myself a member of fantastic school communities.   The teachers I worked with were intelligent, dedicated and hard working individuals.  The exceptions to this description were few and far between. 

My respect for the many Philadelphia schoolteachers who daily demonstrate in the most positive manner what it means to be a true public servant is enormous.  These fine people who struggle to do their best work in a resource-starved district deserve to be commended.   Berating and blaming them in order to distract attention from our societies failure to combat the ill effects of poverty on too many of our children is reprehensible.


Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on October 15, 2012 9:04 pm

I wholeheartedly agree and that has been my experience, too.

Submitted by Stacy Kirk (not verified) on October 15, 2012 11:26 am

We are Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY). We’re writing to you to ask for your support with our MAKING KIDS MATTER in the fall elections campaign: (

Notice anything missing from the debates?

With 40% of Pennsylvania’s children classified as low-income – 20% of them living in poverty – the candidates barely mentioned children during the debate.

You can help Make Kids Matter ( in this election by signing this petition that will be sent to candidates for political office in Southeastern PA:

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on October 15, 2012 12:31 pm

See if you can get the PFT to put this information on the website so it can be sent to all PFT members in addition to the notebook readers.

Submitted by Phila citizen and public school fan (not verified) on October 15, 2012 2:26 pm

If we needed more evidence of political corruption, here's Sunday's Inquirer reporting that Chester Community Charter doesn't have to be accountable for its flagrant cheating on PSSAs:
Dan Hardy's current article doesn't repeat what we already know (reported in Dan Hardy's September 24 article): "The charter school has been controversial because of the way its management company, CSMI L.L.C., has guarded information about its finances, and because Chester Upland administrators blame their financial woes on charter costs. The head of CSMI, Montgomery County lawyer Vahan Gureghian, was Corbett's single largest campaign contributor and served on his transition team."

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 15, 2012 8:49 pm

As Gomer Pyle would often say, "Suh-prize! Suh-prize!" I noticed the article failed to mention that the Chester Charter PSSA scores dropped 30 points this past year now that they are being monitored. Funny how the Dept. of Ed. is willing to look the other way when Gov. Corbett's biggest donor is caught up to no good. Guess they are too busy chaing the PSSA requirements just for the charter schools to punish cheaters.What a bunch of patsies.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 15, 2012 8:32 pm

Vahan has the audacity to give the students at CCCS holiday gifts while he charges them $5,000.00 per student for management fees. Vahan point blank rips off minority children to line his self-dealing pockets. What is happening there is political corruption 101 and anyone with their eyes open knows it.

Tomalis has Zero Credibility and he has turned the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment into a joke.

Everyone knows that they outright cheated on the test. And anyone who says any different is a fool or a liar.

Corbett is complicit in the corruption, too. Make no mistake about it. While the Attorney General sits on his ...... and lets it go on..

Submitted by Ken Derstine on October 15, 2012 10:09 pm

The Inquirer is finally reporting that the Pa. Department of Education manipulated charter results on the PSSA to make charters look better than public schools which Allentown's Morning Call reported last week.

U.S. says Pa. moved too soon to change charter progress rules
from the Inquirer

"The U.S. Department of Education says the Pennsylvania Education Department "acted prematurely" when it changed rules for how charter schools can meet academic-performance standards on the annual PSSA achievement test.

The change makes it easier for most charters to meet the state benchmarks, known as Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). Public school advocates call it an unfair way to make charters look better than regular public schools, to which they have typically been compared.

Instead of averaging the scores of all tested students to make AYP, under the new rules charters could average the test scores of only a few grades to meet state benchmarks, the way it is done for entire school districts."

The article concludes:

"About 49 percent of charters statewide made Adequate Yearly Progress in 2012, compared with 51 percent of all Pennsylvania schools.

In Philadelphia, about 54 percent of charters made the grade, compared with only 13 percent of public schools.

The school boards association said that if the old rules had been used, dozens fewer charter schools would have made AYP and charters would have performed much worse on average statewide than regular public schools.

Under the old rules, the association estimated, statewide, only 33 of 156 charters with PSSA scores - 21 percent - would have gotten the "Made AYP" designation, instead of 49 percent. In Philadelphia, association figures showed, 20 percent of charters would have made AYP, instead of 54 percent.

State Education Department AYP figures showed more charters making the mark than the association estimate. No figures for Philadelphia charters were provided."

Submitted by Philly Parent and Teacher (not verified) on October 16, 2012 4:04 am

Thank you for this post. If anyone doesn't believe the story, just look at the results on emetrics.

I hope the SRC reads the post . Before they trash on District schools, they need to compare "apples to apples" and realize charters didn't do much better than their own schools.

"The school boards association said that if the old rules had been used, dozens fewer charter schools would have made AYP and charters would have performed much worse on average statewide than regular public schools.

Under the old rules, the association estimated, statewide, only 33 of 156 charters with PSSA scores - 21 percent - would have gotten the "Made AYP" designation, instead of 49 percent. In Philadelphia, association figures showed, 20 percent of charters would have made AYP, instead of 54 percent."

Submitted by Ken Derstine on October 15, 2012 11:08 pm

Do you need more evidence that NCLB is advancing a corporate reform agenda. How about this?

Impact of NCLB waiver on poor schools challenged

from the Answer Sheet at the Washington Post

“Below is a letter sent today to Education Secretary Arne Duncan from a coalition of organizations, researchers, activists and government officials who are questioning the racial and economic impacts of the No Child Left Behind waiver granted to New Jersey.
The letter says that the “accountability” system put in place by the state’s Education Department as a result of the waiver rewards schools that serve majority white students while it is more punitive toward school districts serving low-income students of color.”

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The "Won't Back Down" movie reminded me why public school education system sucks, I had a strange feeling all the movie and I could not stop not thinking about the problems from our educational system. In that moment I would rather watch twins of evil movie, it would have been far more interesting to watch.

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