by Elliott Seif
Last week, Pete Mazzaccaro stated in his editorial piece that “the main point of contention over charter schools is funding” and posed the question: “are charter schools worth the cost or is the money spent on charters better spent on improving public schools?”
Unfortunately, this is a false dichotomy. The fact is that, prior to Governor Corbett, Pennsylvania was on track to provide adequate funding to all schools in Philadelphia –charter and district-managed – through a fair and full funding formula and a separate funding category to compensate districts for the extra costs of approving charter schools. Philadelphia received more than $100 million dollars from this fund.
When Governor Corbett took charge, both the fair and full funding formula and the extra funding for approving charter schools were scrapped, leaving us with our present huge funding challenges. There is a relatively simple solution to this problem – reinstate a full and fair funding formula across Philadelphia, and restore the extra funding for approving charter schools. We can have both well-funded charters and district-managed schools!
The demand for more charters is also unclear. The argument that “waiting lists for charter schools are thousands of students long” is often used to support the need for more charters. The evidence for long waiting lists, however, is pretty thin. Charter schools keep their waiting lists from previous years, but it is uncertain whether those students are any longer interested in charters. Some may have been admitted to other charters, others may now be happily ensconced in district-managed schools, and some may have left Philadelphia altogether.
The reality is that no one really knows whether there is a waiting list for charters because of the grossly inaccurate waiting lists. Some think that the lists are smoke and mirrors – that there really isn’t any waiting list, and that the match between charters and parents who want them for their children is about right. Remember – two public elementary schools recently voted against turning their schools into charters!
Third, there is a significant discrepancy between the students charters serve and the general student population in Philadelphia. Charters cater to students who have at least one adult in their lives advocating for them when they send in an application. Charter adults know a little bit about how to use the system to advocate for their children. Charters also can ask students who have serious discipline problems to leave their schools and return to district-managed schools.
On the other hand, district-managed schools have to take everyone, and they do. With many more charters, students with adult advocates leave the public school system to those children without supportive adults, with the most serious and significant challenges and problems, and without the funds to provide an adequate education for these children. Is this the kind of tiered educational system we want for Philadelphia’s children?
And fourth, Mazzaccaro said district-managed schools “scare a lot of parents who can’t afford private schools.” While there are certainly many parents who are concerned with struggling public schools and want other choices, the fact is that there are lots of very strong and appealing district-managed schools across the city – look at Central and SLA, Henry and Jenks, Jackson and Mc Call, many of the special admissions high schools, to name a few. And these and other Philadelphia schools would be much stronger and more appealing if they had the funds to institute strong arts programs, smaller classes, adequate counseling services, libraries and media centers, extra curricular activities and the like.
What we really need in Philadelphia are strong and successful charter schools and strong and successful district-managed schools, with enough resources provided to both that enable them to meet the needs of their students. Full and fair funding for all schools in Philadelphia, extra money to compensate for charter approvals, clarity on the challenges each school faces, and help and support to ensure that every school has the resources and services to meet its challenges will go a long way to helping both charter and district-managed schools to successfully educate their students.
Elliott Seif is a lifelong educator and chair of the Community Advisory Council, High School for Peace and Social Justice at Parkway Northwest, a Philadelphia public school.