Philadelphia: City of Choice

The City of Brotherly Love will soon be the City of Choice—unless your choice is a neighborhood school…

choice11By Susan DeJarnatt
Thanks to the Pennsylvania state legislature, Philadelphia now has no choice but to accept applications for new charter schools. The forty proposed schools envision more than 40,000 new seats—*high performing seats* naturally; is there any other kind? Should all 40 schools be approved—rejects get a chance to appeal to a state board—the cost to the School District of Philadelphia would be $280 million, a death blow to a district that suffered budget cuts in 2013 and 2014 that the superintendent himself called catastrophic. The City of Brotherly Love will soon be the City of Choice. Unless your choice is to attend your neighborhood school, then you don’t have much choice at all.

Choose your choice
Now you’d never know it from reformer rhetoric, but Philly is hardly lacking in out-of-business-300x228charter schools these days. We currently have 86 of them. Oops—make that 84. Two Philly charters recently closed, including the Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School, which alerted parents over the holiday break that students at the charter no longer had a school to return to because the charter was going out of business. This was the same school, by the way, that held a Survivor-style reverse lottery last fall in order to cut its enrollment by half. Our sizeable charter family also includes five schools that have had their charters revoked but continue to operate.

Dump the losers, pick the cherries
Mark Gleason, the head of the Orwellian-sounding Philadelphia School Partnership, has cherry-pickingwelcomed the state’s decision to force Philadelphia to accept new charter applications with great enthusiasm. Philly’s lead *reformer,* Gleason is the same guy who has argued that the city’s schools should run like the stock market and *dump the losers.* More recently, Mr. Gleason proclaimed that money should follow students to whatever school choice they choose, but that *students should not be allowed to enroll in schools that the data shows will fail them.* (As for how this differs from disallowing students from enrolling in schools with other students who are a net drag on data, Gleason didn’t say.) What he did say is that charters are more effective for poor kids than traditional public schools, citing *data* from the *research* arm of the Philadelphia School Partnership. A review by Research for Action, though found that the *study* had cherry picked *winners* and *losers,* and failed to account for differences in grade composition and significantly higher numbers of special education students and English language learners in the traditional schools. 

Operation replication
By Gleason’s logic, forcing Philly to accept new charter applications will allow high-quality charters, aka *winners,* to replicate, giving *more students across the city the opportunity to attend an effective school.* But probably not New Foundations Charter, which currently operates a K-12 school in the Holmesburg area of Northeast Philly that enrolls a majority white student body, of whom 99% speak English. Asked how the school planned to replicate its success with a proposed new school in poorer and predominantly Black Brewerytown, New Foundations execs said they would draw from other area zip codes to include more white students.  

Waiting for an accurate waiting list
The pro-charter folks say that Philly needs more charter schools—40,000 seats waitlistworth of charters—because there’s demand for them, as demonstrated by the 40,000 students on waiting lists. (Interesting that those numbers match so neatly…) But the source of that waiting list number, Robert Fayfitch, head of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, recently admitted that the 40K figure is at best a guess. Based on self-reporting from 2011, the *waiting list* doesn’t attempt to account for students who applied to multiple schools, or who have no current interest in the charter whose list they’re still on.

In other words, a made-up number is being used to justify the demand for new charters that will doom the existing schools parents have already chosen for their kids. These doomed schools will join the long list of traditional schools that have been closed in recent years, including 30 in just the last two years. Not one of those turnovers or closures—from 2002 on—was done at the demand of the parents whose kids attended the schools involved. Indeed, most were closed over their strenuous objection. Nothing like letting the market decide. 

Susan DeJarnatt is a law professor at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law and a long time Philadelphia public school parent. The opinions expressed here are her own. Follow Susan on Twitter @sdejarn.


One Comment

  1. I wish my seat were a high-performing seat. Then I could go take a nap and let it do all the work.

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