Archive | School Choice RSS feed for this section

Women in Jazz Month 2018

12 Mar

March is Women in Jazz Month, a time to celebrate the contributions of women to jazz. Few – male or female – have contributed more to the jazz canon than Billie Holiday. In the decades since her death, Lady Day has been celebrated in film, song, books, fashion and art.


ClickitTicket, a resale marketplace, has created a timeline of Billie Holiday’s life, beginning with her birth in Philadelphia in 1915 and ending with her death in a New York City hospital in 1959.


An excerpt:

Billie Holiday’s voice was a little thin and somewhat limited. She had no technical training; she couldn’t even read sheet music.

Yet, Holiday is one of the greatest vocalists of all-time.

What she lacked in power and tone, she made up for it with the ability to tell a story and emote. Every song she sang she made her own.

Holiday was a true artist who had a profound impact on both jazz and pop music.

She made a huge impact on countless artists including Frank Sinatra.

“Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years,” explained Ol’ Blue Eyes to Ebony magazine in 1958.

Despite personal demons, abusive romantic relationships, and the specter of racism, Holiday achieved commercial and artistic success during her lifetime.

Since her death in the late 1950s, generations of musicians have turned to her recordings for inspiration and enlightenment.



Charter Schools Are Part of the Solution

19 Sep

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


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.


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.

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.

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.”

School Choice: The Remix

3 Feb

Last week was National School Choice Week. To mark the occasion, a select group of bloggers was invited to participate in the Amplify Choice conference, a project of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity.


I’m a product of the New York City public schools. I’m also the beneficiary of school choice. I grew up in Bed-Stuy. I attended the neighborhood elementary school. To get a better education, I chose to go to middle and high school in Bensonhurst, where I was enrolled in a program for gifted students.

The concept of school choice is not a new phenomenon. From the education reforms of the Progressive Era to the Freedom Schools of the Civil Rights Movement, parents have sought alternative educational programs for their children.

In 1972, the Philadelphia Board of Education established the Office of Alternative Programs that was “designed to offer public school youngsters educational experiences different from those that have been offered traditionally and those that are currently provided in ongoing school district programs.” In a paper published by the Journal of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Robert C. Hutchins wrote:

Educational options are being provided through a network of alternatives that make it possible for students and teachers to choose an educational experience that they feel is most appropriate for them. Establishment of more public schools of choice is the direction in which Philadelphia is heading.

Fast forward to today, Philadelphia has 84 public charter schools with a combined enrollment of 67,000 students, or one-third of all public school children. African Americans represent 62 percent of charter students, a higher percentage than in district-run schools (52 percent). While the education establishment debates the academic performance of charters, parents are making their own assessment about what educational environment is most appropriate for their child.

According to a survey from the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia Research Initiative, 62 percent of parents with children in traditional public schools have considered sending their child to a charter school. Among African American parents, 68 percent consider a charter school a viable educational option. The survey also found that 90 percent of charter parents rated their school as “good or excellent.” By contrast, only 40 percent of parents with children in traditional public schools think the school district as a whole is doing a good or excellent job.

Still, critics try to discredit charters by pointing out the leadership of the charter school movement is overwhelmingly white. So at the Amplify Choice Conference, I asked Virginia Walden-Ford, a cofounder of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, whether African American parents express concern that the face of school choice is white. Walden-Ford said:

Parents want to see changes. They’re not caught up on who is the face of school choice. No matter what the face is, they say this is something that will benefit their children. They don’t care what the face looks like.

Back in the day, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff wrote “Give the People What They Want.” What did the people want? The “people want better education now.” As a songwriter, Gamble had his finger on the pulse of the community. So it’s not altogether surprising the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee is a charter school operator.

Thousands of students are on charter school waiting lists in Philadelphia. It’s clear the people want more educational choices for their children.