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When some people look at the troubles of the Philadelphia School District they see the rise of charter schools as a major contributing factor. The argument is that the growth charters have undergone in the last decade has siphoned off students and resources from the district.
One theory is that charters are part of a vast conspiracy to undermine public schools and squelch teachers unions; a rightwing campaign to privatize public education.

Those dark forces talked about today were not evident in Pennsylvania in 1997 when the charter law was passed. I know because I was present at the creation.

As we spiral toward some sort of conclusion to the district’s tale of distress it may help to know the facts.

The backstory is this: At the time, Tom Ridge was governor and he had aspirations for national office. Ridge, a moderate Republican, was a supporter of vouchers to help the Catholic schools. He came thisclose to getting a voucher law passed law, but it failed in the legislature, thanks largely to furious lobbying against the bill by the state’s teachers unions and school districts.

Still desiring the tag ‘education reformer’ Ridge needed something to add to his list of accomplishments.  So, he shifted his attention to this new idea called charters – publicly financed but independent schools meant as an alternative to public education. They had been tried elsewhere and gotten good reviews.  A bill was promptly drafted and passed.

In retrospect, the forces that opposed vouchers regret not fighting charters with the same vigor. But, as people who were present at the time explained to me: they could only fight so many fights; charters were seen as a harmless consolation prize to give the governor, who was very insistent on getting some sort of education reform passed.

Boys Latin

Boys Latin Mock Trial Team

I know that no one at the time – neither charter supporters nor opponents – had any idea that charters would prove so popular and, in Philadelphia at least, expand exponentially until today there are 60,000 students enrolled in 56 charters in the city.

In Philadelphia, support for charters originally came from a small band of education reformists, some of them former employees of the school district, and a group of political and parent activists, most of them African American.

Their support was based on the belief that the school district was not doing a good job educating children, especially poor children, but that the changes that needed to be made would not come from within the system.

Many of them had tried to work within the system, but had been stymied. There was too much institutional resistance, both from bureaucrats and from the teachers union, which were heavily invested in the status quo.

Charters have the advantage of being publicly financed – and therefore tuition free — but independent of the strictures of the bureaucracy and the union contract.

“We saw charters as a build around,” to that institutional resistance, as one early charter supporter once told me.  But, they always imagined it as a small build around – never the popular movement it became.

An unexpected thing happened once charters began to open.  Parents lined up around the block to get in. Demand far exceeded capacity. The long lines surprised the politicians, but clearly they demonstrated a discontent with the education dispensed by public schools.  Many of these were parents too poor to try two existing alternatives — private and Catholic schools.  But, charters had no tuition and they billed themselves as the “Not Public Schools,” branding that made them attractive.

They also evinced a different view towards parents. As one parent who switched from public to charter explained to me, at the public school they were treated as a nuisance, at the charter school they were treated as a customer.

That is significant.

It is also significant that charter schools were seen as safe. Discipline was stressed. Miscreants were ejected. Parents do not want to send their children to school fearing they will be bullied or hurt. Charter schools promised a safe environment.  The public schools did not.

Public school parents were not the only ones who flocked to charters; some Catholic parents did as well, undermining that fragile system. In fact, Catholic educators lamented that charter schools had stolen their brand.  One Catholic principal once pointed me to Boys Latin School, a high school charter in West Philadelphia, as an example:  it is housed in a former Catholic school, the students wear uniforms, discipline is emphasized, good behavior demanded.  As he put it: “It’s Catholic school without the crucifixes.” (This principal ran a high school where tuition was $7,000 a year.  Boys Latin was free.)

Critics point out that academic performance at charters is often as bad or worse than public schools. That charters have had scandals involving founders stealing school funds.  That some charters are in the hands of politicians.  All of this is true.

It doesn’t make any difference.  The most salient fact about charters is that, as a rule, parents love them.  They give the schools 94-percent approval ratings in polls. There is a 30,000-student waiting list to get in. Despite the growth of charters, demand still exceeds supply.

In the 15 years since the charter law passed the educational landscape has changed in dramatic way, with one exception.

The parents and politicians who lobbied for charters were motivated by a singular insight: that the changes needed in public education would not come from within.  The forces for the status quo were too strong. That ‘victories; would be incremental at best, achieved only after hard-fought campaigns. In the meantime, generations of children would be lost.

The history of charters is a prelude to the current crisis in the public schools.  On the surface, that crisis it is all about money. In reality, it is about the singular and simple fact that the power equation has not changed, with one exception.

The Mandarin central bureaucracy is no more. It was decimated by severe budget cuts.

The leadership of the district is reformist, far more focused on results than process. The Great Schools program it is seeking to put in place emphasizes diversity of educational offerings, not a public education monolith.

The financial crisis has heightened the demands for change – especially in the power equation that puts teachers in charge of schools, through work and seniority rules. It’s a system that serves the teachers well, but not the students.

But, what was true 15 years ago remains true today. Any parent expecting change to come from within the district will have a long wait.  As a previous generation did, you must create your own build around.