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Without Accountability, School Choice Will Morph into Choice for Choice’s Sake

29 Aug

You know that moment when you have an epiphany. I experienced such a moment while listening to EdChoice President and CEO Robert C. Enlow at the Amplify School Choice Conference earlier this month. Amplify School Choice is a project of the Franklin Center.

Amplify School Choice 2016 Conference

Enlow spoke about school choice trends across America and the phenomenon of institutional isomorphism. He explained that over time institutions begin to look like each other. Enlow said that charter schools are beginning to look like traditional public schools, noting that public support for charter schools is decreasing. He warned that advocates are losing the argument for school choice.

I’m a longtime supporter of school choice. That said, Enlow attached a process to my inchoate concern about Philadelphia’s charter schools. To be sure, there are high quality charter schools in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection, including Boys’ Latin, KIPP and Mastery. High performing schools show love not by merely instilling discipline; they instill in their students a thirst for learning.

Bad charter schools mirror traditional public schools with respect to student performance, financial mismanagement and conflicts of interest. In Philadelphia, the decision to revoke a charter school’s license is subject to political pressure. As a result, chronically low-performing and mismanaged charter schools are allowed to operate for years.

In 2015, Philadelphia magazine published this advice for parents:

It sounds obvious, but don’t forget to Google any schools you’re looking at, to make sure they weren’t once unexpectedly shut down or run by a CEO who pleaded guilty to theft.

Comedian John Oliver honed in on that recommendation in a recent edition of his HBO show Last Week Tonight.

John Oliver - Philly Magazine

In an open letter to Oliver, Boys’ Latin Charter School Co-Founder Janine Yass wrote:

I have been involved in education reform for over 15 years in the poor city of Philadelphia where over 40,000 children are on charter school waiting lists to escape the horrendous public school system.

Yass added:

Yes, bad ones should close, but what about the bad public schools that continue to operate half full with no teaching going on?!

The response to bad charter schools is accountability, accountability, accountability. The importance of accountability was underscored by Colorado state Rep. Angela Williams during a panel discussion at the Amplify School Choice Conference. Williams said there should be clear and comprehensive accountability standards, and automatic closure of lowest-performing schools.

In response to my question about the NAACP’s call for a moratorium on new charter schools, Rep. Williams said:

What are the laws in your state that create a platform for accountability? We don’t need to be sending our kids to failing schools, whether charter or traditional public schools. I’m not going to stand by and send our kids to failing schools. Charter schools can be successful with the right funding and right governance.

On August 24, Gov. Tom Wolf announced the creation of a new office within the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the Division of Charter Schools. Wolf said in a statement:

Charter schools play an important role in our education system, but that role must be accompanied by sufficient oversight. Establishing this new division within the Department of Education will allow us to maximize our resources to not only ensure charters are being properly supported, but that they are being held accountable to taxpayers.

Bob Fayfich, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said in a statement:

If this initiative is consistent with other actions by the Governor relative to undermining the viability of charter schools, regardless of how effective they are in educating children, then this new Charter Office is something to be concerned about. If, however, this new division is truly dedicated to listening to charter schools and improving public education for all students in Pennsylvania, then we will be supportive.

The fact that no charter school has been consulted in the creation of this office is not a good start, but we will see how the office is funded and staffed and watch closely what it actually does.

Charter school advocates rightly question Wolf’s motive, but there is no question that school choice must be about more than autonomy. Advocates must embrace accountability in equal measure. To that end, they should ensure that a “platform for accountability” is codified in House Bill 530 which the legislature is expected to take up in the fall.

The promise of school choice was that parents would be able to choose from a menu of quality charter schools. And that competition would improve traditional public schools. In Philadelphia, school choice is morphing into two sets of low-performing schools with different governance. With rigorous accountability, charter schools will amplify qualitatively better choices.

Philly Back-to-School Blues

8 Sep

It’s back to school in Philadelphia. Thousands of students are returning to schools where there are no nurses, librarians or guidance counselors. And under the leadership of School Superintendent William Hite, there has been a precipitous drop in students’ performance on state standardized tests.

While there’s no money for classrooms, Hite found $1.2 million to hire bureaucrats for his already bloated administrative staff. Only in Philadelphia would a position be created for a “turnaround” artist whose former employers told him to turn around and get out of town. The Philadelphia Daily News reported that Eric Becoats resigned from his last two jobs “following accounts of his alleged misuse of public resources.”

Daily News Turnaround Boss Cover

City Council President Darrell Clarke has had enough. He sent a letter to Hite:

In a recent edition of the Philadelphia Daily News, it was brought to my attention that you have filled six senior level positions at the School District of Philadelphia. I am writing to request that you provide Council with detailed information concerning these positions, including a job description and the manner in which these individuals will contribute to life in the classroom.

Let me be clear about my concern with this announcement. As you may recall, during City Council’s consideration of the Mayor’s proposed fiscal year 2016 operating and capital budgets, you testified that you were seeking additional funding that would go directly to classroom support, including providing additional teachers to reduce class size and restoring counselors and nurse/health technicians. It is on the basis of your testimony that Council approved approximately $100 million in additional funding for the School District’s upcoming academic year.

Clarke added:

Given this background, I think it is important to understand how the hiring of these six individuals will enhance the educational experience of Philadelphia’s children.

It’s true that trouble doesn’t last always. However, that truism doesn’t apply to a school district whose superintendent inherited a fiscal hole and kept digging.

Philly ‘STEMists’ Head to National Competition

15 Jun

As the school year winds down, students from across the country are gearing up to compete in the National Engineering Design Competition.

MESA Design Competition - 6.15.15

In April, I attended the MESA Day Prosthetic Arm Competition organized by Dr. Jamie Bracey, director of STEM Education, Outreach and Research at Temple University. Dr. Bracey leads Pennsylvania Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA).

Teams of “STEMists” from seven high schools – Abraham Lincoln, Edison, Frankford, G.W. Carver, High School of the Future, Hill-Freeman World Academy and Penn Wood – competed for an all-expenses-paid trip to Utah to represent Pennsylvania in the national competition. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Their challenge was to design and build a low-cost prosthetic arm suitable for an urban environment.

The day began with inspiring keynote remarks by Ken Scott, an electrical engineer, who shared how he got started in engineering.

MESA - Ken Scott - 6.15.15

Scott said:

A lot of it is curiosity. If you like solving problem, engineering is for you. No one is better at solving problems than engineers. It’s about having the initiative to do different things. … Engineers rule the world. Everything starts with engineering.

The teams were judged on a number of tasks, distance accuracy, object relocation and dexterity, design efficiency, technical paper and academic poster presentation.

MESA Judges - 6.15.15

And the winner is …

MESA - 1st Place - 6.15.15

Good luck to Dr. Bracey and the awesome STEMists from George Washington Carver High School.

Why Murals Matter

1 Jun

June is Black Music Month. First observed in 1979 at the White House, I’m kicking off the celebration at City Hall where I will offer public comments at a hearing on the Philadelphia Housing Trust Fund. Some background.

Last year, the Pennrose Company demolished the John Coltrane mural in Strawberry Mansion. Pennrose has been feeding at the public trough of government subsidies for decades. But in an instant, the company erased a tribute to an American cultural icon.

John Coltrane Collage

While the nation celebrates the centennial of the birth of Billie Holiday and Mary Lou Williams, the Philadelphia Housing Authority plans to demolish this cultural asset.

Women of Jazz Mural

Now, you might be wondering what is the connection between murals and the affordable housing crisis? Kelvin Jeremiah, President and CEO of PHA, said it best in his remarks before the City Council Committee on Housing, Neighborhood Development and the Homeless on April 27:

It is my view that the affordable housing crisis that confronts this great city is also an issue of deep-seated structural poverty. … Solving the poverty problem will go a long way to solve the affordable housing crisis.

Philadelphia is the poorest big city in the nation. A whopping 40 percent of school-aged children live in poverty. There is a correlation between education and poverty. If the educational achievement of poor children is increased, fewer will end up on PHA’s 10-year waiting list for public housing.

A growing body of evidence shows that students with access to arts education perform better on standardized tests. In addition to improved student achievement, arts education contributes to the development of cognitive and social skills, nurtures a motivation to learn, increases student attendance and fosters a positive school environment. At-risk students cite their participation in the arts as a reason for staying in school.

Students involved in arts instruction report less boredom in school. Ask students why they dropped out of school, they will say they were bored.

The School District of Philadelphia has drastically cut arts and music programs; 25 percent of schools offer no music instruction. In the absence of arts education, murals may be poor students’ only exposure to the arts.

At the opening of the new Whitney Museum, First Lady Michelle Obama said the arts “could inspire a young person to rise above the circumstances of their life and reach for something better.”

Community-based public art inspires young people to reach for their star.

Reach for Your Star

To be clear, it’s not about preserving brick-and-mortar. Instead, it’s about the transformative power of the arts to engage, motivate and keep students in schools.

It’s also not about money. Through digital and mobile technology, a mural can be recreated at a fraction of its original cost. Indeed, the cost of preserving this great city’s cultural heritage would be far less than, say, Pennrose’s hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions.

Amplifying Choice in Philadelphia

23 Feb

Last week was D-Day for the School Reform Commission. On Feb. 18, the SRC held a public hearing at which it would decide the fate of 39 applicants for new charter schools. I arrived 45 minutes before the hearing was scheduled to begin. After a 15-minute wait in the bitter cold, I was let inside 440 N. Broad and directed to go to Room 1075, the “overflow room.”

I’m an art lover. The school district headquarters is full of art but it’s a joyless and soulless space. Room 1075 is a room with a view of the blues. So after a few minutes, I left and viewed the proceedings via livestream. I’m glad I did. Between the scheduled speakers and the unscheduled outbursts, the meeting lasted five hours.

When it was over, the SRC voted to approve five of the 39 applications. The SRC approved three-year charters (rather than the usual five-year agreement) with conditions for Independence Charter West, KIPP Dubois, Mastery Gillespie, MaST-Roosevelt and TECH Freire. The five schools represent 2,684 new charter seats. But coupled with the abrupt closure of Walter Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter and Wakisha Charter School, and the expected closure of underperforming schools, there’s no net gain in the number of charter seats.

Still, the SRC is catching flak from both sides. Gov. Tom Wolf said in a statement:

The Wolf Administration continues to believe that the district’s financial situation cannot responsibility handle the approval of new charter schools. Governor Wolf remains committed to restoring cuts and delivering more funding to public schools across the commonwealth to ensure our children have the resources necessary to succeed.

More funding for Philly schools may be a casualty of the SRC vote. Pennsylvania Speaker of the House Rep. Mike Turzai said he’s “disappointed” the SRC didn’t approve more applications:

If they’re not going to provide the charter schools for the parents and grandparents that want them, I think that negates the discussion [charter reimbursement budget line item].

The rejected applicants have 60 days to appeal the decision to the state Charter Appeal Board. Meanwhile, charter expansion critics are appealing to parents to stick with traditional public schools “for the greater good.” Please. What parent chooses a school based on the needs of other people’s children?

Charter critics invoke the old chestnut that if you can’t save every child, then no parent should have the option to choose their child’s school. Instead, their child must stay trapped in schools without librarians, nurses and guidance counselors.

It’s crazy to argue that parents should keep their child in a failing school because “all children” do not have options. Parents want what’s best for their child. They do not stand in loco parentis for all children. Try disciplining someone’s child and see what happens.

Let activists, teachers unions, elected officials and others fight over delivery systems. In the birthplace of our democracy, parents on charter school waiting lists want the freedom to choose the best educational option for their child.

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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