More Money, More Problems for Philly Schools

9 Feb

In the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection, there’s little love for the Philadelphia School District and the School Reform Commission.

When the school district and SRC are not rattling the cup, they’re rattling people’s nerves. The SRC got on my last nerve when it approved the sale of William Penn High School for pennies on the dollar. A school district that’s too broke to pay attention left $17 million on the table.

William Penn HS Collage - 2.7.15

Within days of signing off on the sweetheart deal, school officials were in Harrisburg lobbying for a $2-per-pack cigarette tax. They said without more money, the schools would not open on time.

As they say, be careful what you ask for. The cigarette tax was passed. Tucked inside the bill was an amendment that required the school district to accept applications for new charter schools. No new charters have been authorized since 2007.

The school district received 40 39 applications for new charters. The SRC has scheduled a special meeting for Feb. 18 to vote on all 39 applications.

Meanwhile, a group of teachers, educators, parents and community activists is circulating an open letter to “stop the 40 charters” on the grounds that “opening more charters is not a sensible option for our already cash-starved district.” They added:

While there seems to be no panacea for the amalgamation of social issues that affect children’s school experiences, increasing the number of charter schools, and thus, competition, in education does not help to solve any of our city’s problems.

Out of the blue, Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership, made an offer he hopes the “cash-starved” district could not refuse: $25 million to approve up to 15,000 new charter seats. PSP offered an additional $10 million to cover stranded costs. Gleason said in a statement:

We have been listening to the concerns of education stakeholders, parents and public officials about the potential financial impact of charter expansion on District schools and students. We agree that financial impact is an important consideration, and it has become clear that cost concerns are hindering the SRC from making decisions about the charter applications in the best interest of kids and families who are eager for a new opportunity to attend a great school.

The best way to ensure that the SRC can make decisions based solely on the merits of these applications – and give more students access to a high-quality education – is to help the District manage the stranded costs associated with charter expansion.

Critics accuse PSP of fuzzy math. They say the real cost is $500 million. District spokesman Fernando Gallard said “half a billion dollars is not off the mark.”

The stranded costs issue was on the agenda at the Amplify School Choice conference,  Prof. Benjamin Scafidi, a senior fellow with the Freidman Foundation for Educational Choice, said don’t believe the hype:

All costs are either fixed or variable. … When they [school districts] say they can’t lose any more students, they’re saying all their costs are fixed.

The mayoral race is the backdrop to the charter expansion drama. Putative frontrunner Anthony Williams said in a statement:

The school district needs more funding, and Philadelphia public school students will benefit from those additional dollars, especially as they do not draw from additional school resources. We must ensure that the funding stream is revenue-neutral or net-positive, and three years may not be enough time. We must also couple these funds with reinstating the charter reimbursement and a fair funding formula to get the resources we need for every student and put the district in better fiscal shape going forward.

Mayoral candidate Jim Kenney says PSP’s money is tainted and taint enough:

Our school district should not accept PSP’s $25 million. Not only does that offer cover a fraction of the nearly $500 million required to enroll just 15,000 more students in charters, but the donations come from unnamed millionaires who already have far too great an influence in our upcoming mayoral election.

For the school district and SRC, “it’s like the more money [they] come across, the more problems [they] see.”

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