Commentary: Making sense of what's happening in the School District

by on Aug 28 2012

This week's guest commentary about changes in the Philadelphia school landscape is from James M. "Torch" Lytle, a former Philadelphia administrator and Trenton superintendent, now a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education. The Notebook invites guest blog posts on current topics in Philadelphia education from its readers. Contact us at notebook@thenotebook.org to make a submission.

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As the School District of Philadelphia deals with a leadership transition, budget cuts,  funding shortfalls, declining enrollment, school closings, charter school waiting lists, and the most turbulent period in its history, it’s easy to get focused on the turmoil and lose sight of the big picture.

I am a longtime District administrator and former superintendent in Trenton who has watched with dismay the development of policies, starting in 2001 in the Bush administration, that have been designed not so much to raise standards and improve student achievement, but to promote privatization.

On the federal level, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), passed by Congress in 2001, stipulated performance standards for all public schools and a set of sanctions for those that did not meet the standards - closing low-performing schools, converting them to charter schools, or turning them over to for-profit or not-for-profit management companies. The Obama administration has supported these market-based approaches to school reform and worked closely with major foundations to push this agenda.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, 2001 was also the year that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania took control of the School District of Philadelphia and created the School Reform Commission (SRC). The new SRC was immediately armed through NCLB with the power to take over or close schools and authorize charter schools. At intervals since 2001, the U.S. Department of Education has provided Pennsylvania and Philadelphia substantial funding for intervening in low-performing schools, most recently through Race to the Top grants.

USDOE requires that states adopt basic-skills testing programs and stringent teacher qualification and evaluation systems, support charter schools, adopt the Common Core curriculum standards, redesign tests to relate to the Common Core, and report student performance by race, special needs, and English learner “sub-groups.”

This policy agenda has had very little effect on schools in wealthy suburban communities because students in those schools do well enough on state tests to ensure that their schools meet performance standards (i.e., make Adequate Yearly Progress). But what NCLB and Race to the Top have done, happily pushed along by Harrisburg, is create policies and funding for urban public school takeover by charter management companies.

Charter schools receive most of their funding from the districts in which their students live. When students enroll, an amount equal to their “per pupil cost” in the sending district is transferred to the charter. As an example, if a charter school enrolls 500 students and receives $10,000 per pupil, it gets $5,000,000 per year to cover all personnel, materials, books, equipment, and facility costs (some charters also get grant support from foundations and corporations).

For 2012-13, Philadelphia public schools pay $100,000 per teacher, including benefits, when they develop school budgets. Most charter schools pay teachers less and have lower benefits; assume $60,000/position. If a school has 25 teachers for 500 students, the public school will need $2,500,000 for teacher salaries, the charter $1,500,000. Because the charter needs $40,000 less per position, it has $1,000,000 more to spend on rent or a mortgage, equipment, maintenance, administration, operating expenses, and payment to its charter management organization.

In financial terms, urban school districts are unable to compete with charters because they are struggling with unsustainable costs – debt service, aging and underutilized facilities, expensive employee contracts, special education, children who don’t speak English, and unfunded pensions. State and local revenues aren’t keeping pace with cost increases, enrollment is declining, and payments to charters reduce already strained budgets.

Urban public school systems are hardly blameless in the takeover process. They have had longstanding discipline and safety problems, high dropout and attrition rates, poor achievement records, and have, in many instances, treated students and parents cavalierly. As “good” kids – or those with motivated parents – leave for charters, low-performing schools are left with proportionally more of the “hard to educate” students. The cycle continues: Improving student achievement and avoiding takeover have become increasingly difficult.

In contrast, most charter schools are orderly, have a longer school day and year, maintain regular contact with parents, and may even provide child care before and after school. Even on those simple terms, charter schools have an advantage. The fact that their overall academic performance is neither better nor worse than traditional public schools is not a sufficient concern to put off prospective clients.

A recurring criticism of charter schools is that they require applications and discriminate against special needs and English language learner students, a criticism supported by charter enrollment data. Further, they are often accused of dismissing students who misbehave or don’t do well on state tests. Neighborhood public schools, on the other hand, must enroll all children independent of their previous records or needs.

Another concern about charters is that they intentionally encourage teacher turnover to keep salaries and benefits low. Few charter schools are unionized, and their employees work on “at-will” contracts, meaning that they can be fired without cause at any time. Another criticism, certainly true in Philadelphia, is that a significant number of charter schools have grossly mismanaged funds.

In many charters, curriculum tends to be regimented and standardized, and lessons highly scripted, making it easy to replace teachers. To ensure that students behave appropriately, teachers are often encouraged to use behavior management systems that offer rewards that students can exchange for privileges or items at the school store. The emphasis is on control, not on engaging instruction.

Because charter schools have their own boards of trustees, governance is localized, as compared to a single, central school board. At the school level, this means that parents who are dissatisfied with their children’s charter school have little recourse, other than to withdraw their children and transfer them to other schools. There are limited avenues for complaint; there is little transparency around salaries, budgets, and expenditures, or about management company costs and services. Charter school board meetings tend to be infrequent, and confined to school administration and board members. To oversee the 80-plus charter schools in Philadelphia and the 40,000 students who attend them (15,000 more than the total enrollment of the Pittsburgh Public Schools), the SRC has an office of six employees, which would suggest the pretense of oversight.

The large and looming question behind the drive for charters in Philadelphia and nationally is, “Who will profit from this shift in the provision of education in inner cities?” Why is it that Gates/Microsoft and Walton/Walmart are proponents of charters, portfolio management, and market-based approaches?

Why is it that rich White folks are leading the conversation about what poor Black and Latino kids need? Why is so much campaign money being used to support charter and voucher proponents? Where is the evidence that charter schools do a better job than traditional public schools? And what does Boston Consulting Group know about urban schooling that School District teachers and principals don’t?

These are all big questions, and there are no clear answers. But a reasonable notion would be to follow the money. The federal government is subsidizing charter expansion, as are major foundations. Charter schools offer the potential for low-risk, high-gain returns. And a number of national charter school management companies are working to meet demand - think McDonald's or Walmart as models for national systems of schools with predictable products and quality, low cost, and standardized educational programs.

In another respect, the democratizing function of public schools is being superseded by consumer-driven choice and market approaches that favor those who know how markets work. That means it’s up to parents to choose the right schools, and to their children to take advantage of the education they get.

Now what’s happening in Philadelphia makes sense. And those who are uncomfortable with the hijacking of public schools are going to have to organize quickly, find voice, and propose realistic options.