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Charter Schools Are Part of the Solution

19 Sep

Last week, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation held its 46th Annual Legislative Conference.

alc16_maingraphic

I am a policy wonk and longtime “CBC Week” attendee. In DC, policy positions typically follow the money. So I was wary of CBCF ALC education sessions in light of the fact that the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association are conference sponsors.

Congressman Bobby Scott, Ranking Member on the Committee on Education and the Workforce, hosted the Education Braintrust.

education-braintrust

The focus of the braintrust was “evidence-based programs and best practices for increasing black children’s opportunity for success in today’s education and workforce systems.” Rep. Scott asked presenters to do more than “celebrate the problem.” He called on them to offer solutions. So surely someone would offer charter schools as a solution. No one did.

I dutifully took notes as speaker after speaker extolled the importance of parental involvement. Dr. George McKenna noted that the California Department of Education mandates family engagement.

Although parental involvement is the hallmark of charter schools, speakers dare not say their name at a conference sponsored by the AFT and NEA.

In his remarks at the CBCF 46th Annual Phoenix Awards Dinner, President Barack Obama spoke about his legacy.

Part of Obama’s legacy is his support for charter schools:

During National Charter Schools Week, we celebrate the role of high-quality public charter schools in helping to ensure students are prepared and able to seize their piece of the American dream, and we honor the dedicated professionals across America who make this calling their life’s work by serving in charter schools.

Charter schools play an important role in our country’s education system. Supporting some of our Nation’s underserved communities, they can ignite imagination and nourish the minds of America’s young people while finding new ways of educating them and equipping them with the knowledge they need to succeed. With the flexibility to develop new methods for educating our youth, and to develop remedies that could help underperforming schools, these innovative and autonomous public schools often offer lessons that can be applied in other institutions of learning across our country, including in traditional public schools.

[…]

Charter schools have been at the forefront of innovation and have found different ways of engaging students in their high school years — including by providing personalized instruction, leveraging technology, and giving students greater access to rigorous coursework and college-level courses. Over the past 7 years, my Administration’s commitment of resources to the growth of charter schools has enabled a significant expansion of educational opportunity, enabling tens of thousands of children to attend high-quality public charter schools. I am committed to ensuring all of our Nation’s students have the tools and skills they need to get ahead, and that begins with ensuring they are able to attend an effective school and obtain an excellent education.

The failure to include charter schools among best practices to prepare black boys and girls for lifelong success does not do justice to President Obama’s legacy.

10,000 Reasons Why the NAACP Is Wrong About a Moratorium on Charter Schools

5 Sep

It’s back to school. It’s also back to the charter school debate.

In an AlterNet piece, Steven Rosenfeld outlined “10 Reasons Why the NAACP Is Absolutely Right About a National Moratorium on Charter Schools.” I had planned to write a point-by-point rebuttal, but Rosenfeld’s diatribe is more opinion than fact. I remembered the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan often said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”

Rosenfeld is entitled to his opinion so I’ll share a few facts. In Philadelphia, one-third of students attend charter schools. There are 83 charter schools, two of which — MaST Community Charter School and String Theory Charter School — have a combined waiting list of more than 10,000 students.

The Washington Post recently editorialized:

WHEN SCHOOLS get it right, whether they’re traditional public schools or public charter schools, let’s figure out what’s working and share it with schools across America.” Hillary Clinton was booed at the National Education Association’s summer convention for that self-evidently sensible proposition. The reaction speaks volumes about labor’s uniformed and self-interested opposition to charter schools and contempt for what’s best for children. Now the union has been joined by a couple of organizations that purport to be champions of opportunity.

In separate conventions over recent weeks, the NAACP, the nation’s oldest black civil rights organization, and the Movement for Black Lives, a network of Black Lives Matter organizers, passed resolutions criticizing charter schools and calling for a moratorium on their growth. Charters were faulted by the groups for supposedly draining money from traditional public schools and allegedly fueling segregation. The NAACP measure, which still must be ratified by the board before becoming official, went so far as to liken the expansion of charters to “predatory lending practices” that put low-income communities at risk.

No doubt that will come as a surprise to the millions of parents who have seen their children well-served by charters and to the additional million more who are on charter school waiting lists for their sons and daughters. “You’ve got thousands and thousands of poor black parents whose children are so much better off because these schools exist,” Howard Fuller of the Black Alliance for Educational Options told the New York Times.

This information likely comes as a surprise to Rosenfeld. But his mind is made up; don’t confuse him with the facts. Indeed, he dismissed the editorial saying “it is deeply wrong to belittle the issues that affected communities raise—which is the basis for the NAACP’s draft resolution.”

The basis for African American parents’ support of charter schools is the fierce urgency of now. As income has become a proxy for race, they reject the notion that their zip code is destiny. Black parents don’t want their children trapped in failing traditional public schools because they live in the “affected communities.”

Access to charter schools empowers low-income and working-class parents to exercise their right to choose the best educational environment for their children. Fact is, black students make up 27 percent of charter school enrollment nationwide.

The bottom line for Rosenfeld is, well, the bottom line. In his worldview, charter schools “divert” money from traditional public schools. By contrast, supporters believe the money should follow the student. For them the bottom line is: Are students learning the three Rs – reading, writing and arithmetic?

Unfortunately for Rosenfeld and the NAACP, facts are stubborn things.

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.

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