January 5 — 3:16 pm, 2016

Gambling fever

Why does the School District keep betting on charter schools?

twighlight zone fever

In the Twilight Zone episode called "The Fever," a staid and sober family man becomes addicted to a slot machine during a visit to Las Vegas. He sinks deeper and deeper into his addiction, recognizing its inhumanity and destructive power. And yet he can’t stop himself.

Throughout the last 40 years, American school districts have had a bad habit of latching onto shiny new educational ideas that promise all sorts of wonderful things. The bigger and faster that the promise of success is – like a neon sign flashing in Vegas –the more willing that school districts like Philadelphia’s seem to be to plunk taxpayer money down on the table, thinking that they are going to hit it really big this time. 

The zing of sugarcoated promises gives them the rush they need to keep pushing their magical thinking upon an unsuspecting public. The evidence of their educational failures fills the basement of 440 N. Broad St. They can’t stop themselves. Perhaps they don’t want to. As long as they get their fix, they must feel as though they are doing good. It’s the rest of us who can’t sleep at night.

Charter schools have been the newest and shiniest educational enticement. As with all allurements, there is a price to pay, and the children in the traditional public schools are the ones paying for the historic and dangerous lack of resources. As with the slot machine in The Twilight Zone, the charters seem to call out the names of the decision-makers, in this case the superintendent and the School Reform Commissioners. Just follow my siren song, they seem to say, and I will reward you with unimaginable luck.

With their "no excuses" mantra, highly paid charter school CEOs promise school administrators that they will bring students up to grade level in no time at all. It all sounds so attractive. And believable. School districts all over the country have been sucked in by this big, brash idea that sounds wonderful on paper, but has largely failed to deliver on its promises. This has not stopped the charter school operators from repeating their claim of educational superiority over and over again until it takes on the ring of truth.

But the reality is that the charter schools’ claims contain more “truthiness” than actual truth. According to Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC), a national study by CREDO that many cited to tout the superior performance of charters actually found that "less than one hundredth of one percent (<0.01 percent) of the variation in test performance in reading is explainable by charter school enrollment."

Let’s put that alleged 0.01 percent success rate into a Philadelphia perspective. The SRC has approved charter school establishment and expansion even while the traditional public schools languish. As children are injured, or even die, as did Laporshia Massey at Bryant Elementary, or as violence occurs, as it did at George Washington High School, the fault somehow lies with the resource-starved schools and not the SRC’s addiction to the lure of charter schools.

The underwhelming performance of charter schools for an overwhelming amount of money should set off alarms. Their quick solutions to educational woes follow the logic of past failures: Just hand over the money and we’ll do it all for you. In the end, however, there is only one certainty: If something is too good to be true, it is not the truth.

Superintendent William Hite and the SRC’s attraction to so-called high-quality charter schools, many of which have proven academic deficiencies and/or mismanagement issues, has had severe consequences for Philadelphia children who attend traditional public schools. Although children who attend well-managed charter schools learn in clean, safe environments with sufficient personnel, too many children in traditional public schools are forced to attend dirty, unsafe schools with no nurse, no assistant principals, and an insufficient number of counselors and school police. Although some charter schools have libraries with a fireplace where children can curl up and read, traditional public schools have no librarians, and consequently, little access to books.

Several questions need to be asked about this scenario. The first is, why would the SRC allow the majority of Philadelphia’s children to attend dirty, unsafe schools without counselors, nurses, and assistant principals while other children clearly do not? Why is there hardly any discussion about this glaring disparity?

I have a couple of answers. The first is that there is a plan afoot to break public schools deliberately so that they can be handed over to charters. Thus, the SRC and Hite are wreaking havoc by deliberately deferring maintenance and cutting staff to dangerous levels in traditional schools. This practice effectively insures the failure that is necessary to hand over the now low-performing, intentionally broken “seats” over to more “successful” charter operators who feel justified in cutting into the resources available to District schools. This is being done in a calculated way in order to break the teachers’ union, the whipping boy of modern school reform.

The second is that District leaders and politicians are trying to appease elected officials in rural areas who perceive city schools and urban children as great leeches feeding off public dollars who divert resources away from more deserving populations. For them, giving more money to ”those” children in urban areas is like throwing money into a pit.  The idea in the Pennsylvania House and Senate is that throwing money at schools doesn’t fix them, although they believe that having enough money fixes just about everything else.

The third is that the SRC has become the ball carrier for hedge fund managers for whom education is a place where they can make money. The fact that school reform is being led by MBAs rather than by educators is telling.

In the end, it is the SRC, Hite, and the state of Pennsylvania who are responsible for the sad condition of public education in our city. The adults entrusted with the care of Philadelphia’s children are gambling with these students’ lives in a sick, grown-up Game of Thrones. This should jar the consciences of the just.

There are those who say that the SRC has no choice, given the political milieu and the financial realities of our time. However, there is always a choice for thinking people. Thinking, caring people refuse to use children as poker chips. They recognize that gambling is a really bad habit that leads to inhumanity and destruction.

The most obvious choice is to stop charter expansion until all children in our city are learning on a level playing field with adequate staff in clean, well-maintained buildings. When that happens, I shall believe that the SRC is really serious. As it stands, the SRC and Hite have dealt a scary, unworkable hand to kids in traditional public schools.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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