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The imminent closure and sale of 23 Philadelphia schools has rightly revolved around the future of Philadelphia’s most vulnerable citizens—its children. But the closures will undoubtedly rekindle another debate that could change the face of public education in Philadelphia. That debate concerns the threat—perceived or real—that the growth of charter schools poses to the survival of the Philadelphia School District as we know it.
The debate is not necessarily about the privatization of education. Charter schools, after all, are public schools, and just like those run by the School District, receive public funding. Many of them, like Mastery Charter-Shoemaker Campus, whose students I worked with as part of a literacy program I created, boast committed teachers and high standards. Others, like the Laboratory Charter School and two more founded by former Philadelphia School District Principal Dorothy June Brown, have been sullied by alleged criminal misconduct; Brown and four co-defendants were indicted in federal court for defrauding the schools of $6.7 million. One alleged co-conspirator, Anthony Smoot, 50, pleaded guilty to the charges in March.
Still, parents have increasingly and justifiably spurned underperforming district schools in favor of charters, leading to 70,000 empty seats in the district. That fact, along with the district’s $242 million budget shortfall for next year, has forced the impending closure of 23 schools. And those school buildings, which are expected to go on the market after a procedural vote by the School Reform Commission (SRC), could very well determine the future of public education in Philadelphia. Why? Because if charter school operators are allowed to expand by purchasing the available buildings, district schools will continue to hemorrhage students, and the face of public education will change for the foreseeable future.
The experts I’ve talked to have said the SRC, a politically appointed body that functions like a school board for the Philadelphia School District, knows it must deal with the charter issue, and is beginning to do so. “I think the School District is moving toward taking a closer look at how the charter sphere is managed,” said Emily Dowdall, co-author of the Pew study, Shuttered Public Schools: The Struggle to Bring Old Buildings New Life. “The SRC gave itself the right to cap charter school attendance,” she added, “but whether or not the School District wants to put charter schools into some of these former buildings is something that’s going to have to be addressed.”
Addressing it won’t be easy, because while charter school operators make a valid point in arguing that their effective schools should be allowed to grow, there is a cost associated with that growth, and it goes well beyond buildings or programs.
When charters expand, as I believe they will, district schools will close, and ineffective teachers and administrators will find themselves jobless. That’s a fair result. But what about the many committed teachers who’ve spent their careers effectively educating students? What about the administrators who’ve turned around district schools with the help of involved parents? What about the noontime aides who went beyond their job description to pull struggling students aside and tell them that everything would be okay? I’ve met those people in district schools, and it’s my concern that those people, many of whom are Philadelphians, will find themselves without the living wage jobs that stabilize our tax base, strengthen our neighborhoods, and sustain strong families in our region.
From the outside looking in, perhaps those workers represent nothing more than collateral damage. But for some of those teachers and administrators—college-educated workers, mind you—careers in the Philadelphia School District are among their best options, because even in 2013, there are corporate environments where glass ceilings are still the norm for women and minorities.
But what of the students? Why should they be relegated to the misery of attending a bad school? My answer, quite simply, is that they shouldn’t, because I agree with Mastery Schools CEO Scott Gordon, who said in an interview that, “I think the SRC should be, and I believe they are, concerned about children getting the best quality education. They should be encouraging charter schools to grow, to expand, to open new, and to buy buildings that are vacant. They should also be making sure that public district schools that are strong or growing can expand.
“But I would step away from it and look at it through a different lens,” Gordon added. “My lens is the lens of a parent. We work in schools that, just a month before, were public district schools. They become district charter schools … [and things start to change]. Parents want to know who’s going to be the principal, who’s my child’s teacher going to be, is it going to be a quality education? Charter versus district is not the concern of the parents who pay the taxes. They’re worrying about the children.”
In truth, that should be everyone’s concern. As a parent with a child in a Philadelphia public school, it’s definitely mine. But I’m not worried about my child being assaulted at school. Nor am I worried about the quality of her education, because she attends a magnet school that’s among the best in the state. My daughter will be fine, and so will my son, because we placed him in private school rather than sending him to a neighborhood school we found unacceptable. But what about those parents whose children are stuck in subpar neighborhood schools? What about those who don’t understand the process of applying to charter schools? What about those who can’t afford private schools? Should they be left with no choice but to attend whatever school is thrust upon them? I say no.
Every American student has the right to public education, no matter his financial or social status. To that end, it’s my belief that the SRC must allow good charter schools and good public schools to expand in Philadelphia. But there is a belief I hold more sacred than that. It’s the belief that public education should be equal. No matter what public school a child attends, he or she should have the same measure of safety, the same level of care, and the same quality learning materials. That must be the standard, no matter who’s running the school.
As the city and School District move forward in their likely quest to sell the 23 school buildings that will close in June, we’ll examine the potential impact new uses will have on communities. We’ll look at poverty rates and levels of abandonment around the schools. We’ll ask neighbors what they believe the best use of the buildings will be, and in the end, some of those buildings will be sold to charter school operators.
If, as I suspect, those sales mark the beginning of a new chapter in the history of public education in Philadelphia, then let it be a chapter in which every school provides every child with a quality education. Let it be a chapter in which every teacher and administrator is committed to the goal of changing young people’s lives. Let it be a chapter in which district schools and charter schools all strive for the same high standard. Because if this new chapter is anything less than that, we will be on the verge of creating two separate school systems: one for the parents who are savvy or lucky enough to get their children into the best charter schools, and the other for the parents who are relegated to the worst of the district schools.
As Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote for the majority in the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case, Brown v. the Board of Education, “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
That’s why the sale of these buildings must usher in a new era in public education in Philadelphia—an era in which the universal standard is excellence.