Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan wasted little time in blasting the School Reform Commission’s decision to expand its 2012–2013 school year charter school offerings in the face of an epic budgetary gap, approaching $300 million for the coming school year.
Writing in his blog, Jordan ridiculed Office of Charter, Partnership and New Schools Deputy Chief Thomas Darden’s recent decision, saying Darden and the SRC are going back to the sort of decision-making that led to the current malaise.
“[Last] Friday, the district’s charter school office chief conceded that the charter expansions approved so far this year could cost $139 million over five years — $100 million more than he originally stated. So, on top of a looming $282 million deficit, the school district is spending another $38 million, and making $100 million math mistakes? Clearly, the charter school expansion agenda has trumped fiscal soundness,” read Jordan’s statement, in part. “The current deficit is a major obstacle to reforming a school system that was already struggling to serve our children. With a new projected deficit of over $300 million, it’s time to abandon this high-cost, low-return reform model our kids have been subjected to. Kudos to School Reform Commissioners Joseph Dworetzky and Lorene Cary for voting against adding another $139 million to the school deficit, and advocating for a research-backed, school-based approach to education reform.
“We can save money and get better results by working with and supporting our own educators and administrators. They, after all, are trained to do what we’re trying to accomplish: devise strategies to give our children the education they need,” Jordan’s statement continued. “The District cannot afford the latest round of charter expansions, but if the SRC insists on spending millions of dollars, our students and teachers could certainly benefit more from additional classroom materials and technology; safer school buildings; afterschool programs and social services.”
The district currently has 80 charter schools on its roster.
School Reform Commission Spokesman Fernando Gallard said that Darden had misunderstood the question, and took umbrage at the assumption the district doesn’t know what it is doing with its funds.
“Well, I think it needs to be put in context. The $38 million was for a specific number of schools, not for all of the schools under consideration,” Gallard said. “What happened was Darden was asked about the costs of seats. When he answered the question, he was looking at those schools and not [the total of charter] schools.
“That $38 million, Darden was talking about the cost of adding four charter schools and not all of the charters under consideration,” Gallard continued. “So from the beginning of this process, when Darden was doing his presentation of what costs might look like before expansions, he put a number of $100 million total.
“So the idea that the district did not know what the possible costs of the expansion would be is not correct.”
Still, Gallard confirmed that the district will spend $139 million for the expansion of its charter school program, and it is that number and the methodology involved which has irked both Jordan and legislators.
Lawmakers statewide have sought to reform charter school oversight and funding. House Bill 2352 is but one of several pieces of legislation that will add layers of checks and balances to the charter school system, as would HB 2364, otherwise known as the Charter and Cyber Charter Reform law.
State Rep. James Roebuck has been a proponent of both pieces of legislation and of charter school reform on the whole, and believes the SRC would do well to rethink its position on funding charter school expansion.
“I’ve had no direct communication on that issue [with the SRC], but it seems to me, given the economic pressures on the district, they would be wise to assess where they are going,” Roebuck said, “and assess where [the district] needs to be before expanding charters or doing anything else.”
Roebuck had intimated that charter school reform will be a main topic once the General Assembly reconvenes in September.
HB 2364, introduced by Rep. Mike Fleck and endorsed by Roebuck, would severely reduce the statewide funding of charter and cyber charter schools.
“At a time when public schools are still coping with last year’s state education funding cuts and local property taxpayers want to avoid another round of trickle-down tax hikes, it’s only fair to taxpayers for all schools to play by the same rules,” Roebuck said when he announced his support of the measure. “These reforms [included in HB 2364] … provide this relief immediately to school districts and their taxpayers. These reforms would provide at least $45.8 million in savings for the coming school year, and probably much more than that.”
Dry run of voter ID law, get out the vote efforts
Candidates, their campaign staffs, and city officials, were bracing for a particularly difficult Election Day today as Pennsylvania voters head to the polls to cast their vote in the spring primary.
“It’s an unusually complex environment,” said City Commissioner Stephanie Singer. “I think there is going to be a lot of scrutiny of this election.”
In addition to the typical challenges voters face — which candidate to choose — voters in this primary also have to deal with the “soft roll out” of the state’s new voter ID law.
Though the law does not go into effect until the Nov. 6 election, poll workers will be asking voters for a photo ID this time in an effort to get a handle on how many lack the identification required for the fall.
“This is just a dry run,” Singer said. “You will do nothing differently.”
But, the change has everyone from candidates to volunteers paying a little more attention.
“You are going to make this happen,” Damon K. Roberts, a candidate for the state House, told volunteers at a training session for polling place volunteers Monday morning at his Dickinson Street office. “Victory needs to be on your face.”
It was crunch time and similar scenes were playing out all over the city and state. Every seat in the state House is up for grabs, as are half the seats in the state Senate.
In addition, Pennsylvania voters will choose their party’s candidates for president, U.S. senator and representative, state attorney general, treasurer and auditor general. In Philadelphia, which is overwhelmingly made up of Democratic voters, the primary often determines who ultimately wins in the general election.
Roberts is locked in a tough contest with former Youth Commissioner Jordan Harris for the 186th Legislative District, who is widely viewed as the favorite, and Timothy Hannah, a long-time community activist.
The race for the 186th is a prime example of the situation city voters face as they head to the polls. Though there is no incumbent in the race, Harris, who was endorsed by The Tribune Sunday, has the backing of the Democratic establishment — including city Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who held the 186th seat until January, and state Sen. Anthony Williams. Roberts has run for state representative and City Council before.
In addition, voters in the district will be asked to choose someone to fill the remainder of Johnson’s term in the state House. The Democrat there is Harold James, who held the seat for decades before retiring in 2008, paving the way for Johnson’s win.
The race in the 186th is just one of several hotly contested races across the city. In other races to watch include the 188th District, which pits incumbent state Rep. James Roebuck against newcomer Fatimah Muhammad. The campaign has taken on a negative tone with a political action committee attacking Roebuck, who has the support of the teachers’ union, for his stance on public education. Muhammad told The Tribune the attack had nothing to do with her campaign, adding that she supports vouchers in principle, but does not endorse the proposal now in the House.
In the 197th District, Jewel Williams, daughter of former state Rep., now Sheriff Jewell Williams is seeking her father’s seat in Harrisburg. She faces several contenders in the race: J. Miranda, Kenneth Walker and Jamil Ali. Opponents have accused to Williams of fostering confusion among voters in an effort to get them to vote for her thinking they are voting for her father. Voters here will also be asked to pick someone to fill the remainder of Jewell Williams’ seat. The choice there is between ward leader Gary Williams or perennial candidate T. Milton Street, brother of former Mayor John Street, who once served in the state House and has since served time for tax evasion.
Eighteen-year incumbent state Rep. Rosita Youngblood faces two challengers this primary season: Malik Boyd and Charisma Presley. The development at Chelten Plaza, which sparked a neighborhood controversy, had divided constituents. Youngblood opposed the project after the developer altered plans to build at Super Fresh there. Boyd backed the change, which brought a Sav-A-Lot to the plaza along with a dollar store, saying they were more in line with what the district needed.
Despite the hype, and the new voter ID law, voter turnout is expected to be low — perhaps lower than usual because of voter confusion about the state’s new voter ID law.
Voter turnout in primary elections in non-presidential years is typically low.
Singer said she’s not sure what this year’s turnout will look like.
“I have been surprised at how much anger there is over the voter ID law,” she said, adding that she hoped that anger would translate in votes. “The best way to beat this is for Philadelphians to come out and vote.”
Most expect the confusion that surrounds the new law and traditional voter apathy to reduce turn out.
“Voting here and around the country is embarrassingly low,” said Zack Stalberg, president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy, an elections watchdog group.
Both declined to give estimates.
There were slightly more than 1 million registered voters in the 2011 primary — 797,762 Democrats and 127,165 Republicans with 90,000 others. But, only 17.6 percent of the registered voters turned out in the 2011 primary.
Roberts was well aware of the statistics and told his volunteers the contest is likely to be close — urging them to get their friends and neighbors to vote.
“This might come down to five or 10 votes,” he said.
Stirring voters’ passions can be difficult.
Roberts portrays himself as a community crusader battling the city’s political machine.
“Some people just go along with the agenda,” he said, getting his volunteers fired up.
But, he also made sure they knew he was a Democrat, telling the group that the Republicans who control Harrisburg have a “radical right agenda.”
He used education as an example — honing in on vouchers — a hot button issue in this election cycle, in part because the political action committee Students First has poured tens of thousands of dollars into several races in south, southwest and west Philadelphia.
“If they destroy our public schools, where are our kids going to go?” asked Roberts.
In one corner, Kevin Parks had been listening as he inserted flyers into packets that would go to every polling place volunteer in the district.
As Roberts talked, Parks had difficulty containing himself.
“The private schools can turn out the kids,” he said loudly, shaking his head.
With every seat in the state House up for grabs and voter turnout expected to be low, candidates rely on grassroots enthusiasm.
“You are going to make it happen,” Roberts told his people.
He hopes to have between 160 and 200 volunteers at polling places across the district. Some of those will be the volunteers that stand outside the polling places. Some will be poll watchers, who must be certified to stand inside the polling place.
City officials will be watching closely this year.
“We understand that there may be some confusion this year with the new voter ID law that is now in place,” said District Attorney Seth Williams. “We want to make sure that no one is discouraged about going to the polls … because of that confusion.”
He promised that his office would “go after any criminal activity and prosecute it to the fullest extent of the law.”
A 27-year-old West Philadelphian has launched a challenge to state Rep. James Roebuck, who has held the 188th Legislative District seat for almost as long as she’s been alive.
Fatimah Muhammad hopes to capture the seat and bring a fresh perspective to the state house.
“It’s time to be able to let fresh ideas, new perspectives come to the table,” she said. “I am young, with fresh ideas, and I’m a woman. There is a time for change, and the time is now.”
She will be on the April 24 ballot.
All of Muhammad’s priorities hinge on one thing — education.
“I’m passionate about education,” she said, noting that she has been an educator and community organizer.
If the district’s children are properly educated, jobs and safer streets will follow, she said, noting that those three things are her top priorities for the district.
Muhammad faces stiff competition from Roebuck, who has held the seat for 25 years and has powerful political support.
“We are going to send Jim back to Harrisburg,” said Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers said at a recent gathering of Roebuck’s supporters. “Nothing beats experience.”
It is Muhammad’s first attempt at running for public office.
She chose to run for state representative as a way to demonstrate to young people that aiming high is important.
“I want them to know their potential — so I say: ‘Aim high. Aim big,’” she said. “I know that as a state rep, I can make a difference.”
However, she said her professional and personal experiences have prepared her to represent the people of West Philadelphia.
“I know what it’s like to be hungry and to feel left behind. I said that if I ever get out of that situation, that I would do anything in my power to make sure other children won’t go through what I went through,” she said. “Policy for me is not theoretical, it’s personal.”
Too often, she said, politicians forget that.
“We’re representing real people,” she said.
As someone who has worked for 10 years as a community activist, Muhammad is confident that she can navigate the partisan atmosphere in Harrisburg.
“I’m someone who’s been doing things in the community,” she said. “I’m not a stranger to challenging conversation.”
Her experience has given her a pragmatism she said will serve her constituents well in the capitol.
“I’m not some idealist who read in a book how to do this. I’ve lived it. I’m a fighter, I fought my way to where I am,” she said.
Muhammad grew up in Plainfield, N.J. and has lived in the Clark Park area for about 10 years. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in sociology in 2006.
Supporters of President Barack Obama held the grand opening of their new campaign office at 209 S. 52nd Street in West Philadelphia on Wednesday.
Enthusiastic volunteers filled the storefront office, where they heard campaign organizers pledge to do their best to re-elect the president.
“Today we are welcoming and hoping to initiate this whole neighborhood, within a five mile radius of this office, to get them involved,” said Clyde Sherman, a volunteer of the Busy-bodies, a West Philadelphia-based team of campaign organizers.
Philadelphia is crucial for Obama’s campaign, according to political pundits, and the Busy-bodies hope to turn out the vote for him this election as they did in 2008.
“This office is going to be extremely powerful in getting the vote out and making everyone aware of the voter ID laws, and getting the seniors to understand that we need them to vote in November,” said Sherman.
Sherman described the grand opening as an informal, friendly event, which was attended by District Attorney Seth Williams, state representative Jim Roebuck and Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell.
“Most of us were volunteers. We just want all of the volunteers to come out and give us an hour, or a half-hour — for phone banking and canvassing — to really make it a grassroots effort like we did in 2008,” said Sherman.
As a volunteer, Sherman said that his role was to do whatever needed to be done.
“We are going to be pushing the whole community to get behind the West Philadelphia office,” said Sherman. “We are going to have the best numbers. We are going to have the best phone banking and the best canvassing because we are fired up and ready to go.”
The president of the Friends of Malcolm X Memorial Park, Gregorio Pac Cojulon Jr. was present at the opening and urged residents of the area to get involved with the re-election activities at the 52nd Street office.
“We need him. We need president Obama for four more years,” said Cojulon. “We need people to come out here and volunteer their time and efforts help canvass the people. We need the young people out here; we need the seniors to come out like they did in 2008.”
If, as the old saying goes, politics is a contact sport; then Philadelphia politics is a no-holds-barred, steel cage death match.
Every campaign season, we are inundated with candidates whose shameless win-at-all-costs philosophy embarrasses us into not voting for them, or not voting at all. Every Election Day, whether primary, general or special, we are treated to stories of dirty tricks, underhanded tactics, and outright sabotage in the name of winning a public office.
Then the winners somehow expect the public to forget everything they’ve seen and heard for the past six months and trust them as honorable, fair-minded servants of the people.
This explains pretty much everything wrong with local politics: the feeling of voter apathy, the general distrust of elected officials, and the pathetic 15 to 18 percent voter turnout numbers we’re used to seeing.
We, the long-suffering public, are expected to wade through a knee-deep quagmire of lies, corruption, and stupidity to arrive upon a candidate who can move this city, and this country forward without succumbing to the temptation of greed and corruption themselves.
It’s not easy, and it’s not pretty, but once in a while, the good guys actually win.
There are several examples, but I’ll just cite a couple for now.
State Rep. Jim Roebuck, who has quietly led West Philly’s 188th District for more than 25 years, suddenly found himself in a dogfight for his seat with Fatimah Muhammad, a 27-year old neophyte with lots of youthful enthusiasm, and an equal amount of youthful naiveté.
Ms. Muhammad received about $25,000 for her campaign coffers from Students First PA, the pro-voucher group who spent a fortune bankrolling the campaigns of local politicians willing to sign on to the school voucher philosophy.
Strongly worded campaign literature floated around the district painting the incumbent Roebuck as an anti-child, anti-education dinosaur because of his opposition to school vouchers. While Muhammad denied any connection to the literature, and in fact stated in a Tribune editorial board meeting that she wouldn’t vote for the voucher bill as it is presently written, the association stuck.
Roebuck won his seat, and Muhammad has presumably been left to ponder the consequence of taking large sums of cash from single-issue contributors. That money isn’t free, folks, and you’re nuts if you think they don’t want something for it. Deviate from the script, and bad things happen.
Up in North Philly’s 197th District, Jewel Williams, the 27-year old daughter of newly elected Sheriff Jewell Williams, ran for the state rep seat he held for years. She didn’t campaign much, didn’t work to get her name out there much, and didn’t do much to quiet the increasing number of voices complaining that she was looking for a free ride by cashing in on her father’s familiar name.
It’s a cynical idea, and one both her and her father should have worked hard to quash. Philadelphians have voted for the offspring of famous politicians before: Goode, Rizzo, Williams, and Green come to mind, but it’s usually a fact that the offspring makes a special effort to be their own person, to prove that they are much more than just ‘whats-his-name’s kid.’
If I were to leave my job tomorrow, I would not attempt to install my 22-year old daughter as city editor of the Tribune. While I love her more than anyone on earth, I also recognize that she is completely unqualified to run a newsroom. To ignore that fact would be an insult to my colleagues, and to our readers.
To their credit, the voters of the 197th didn’t fall for the old okey doke. They elected J.P. Miranda, who is also very young, but brings with him a wealth of experience as a legislative aide and community organizer.
In my South Philly neighborhood, state House candidate Damon Roberts faced a much more dangerous opponent than Jordan Harris, who beat him out for the 186th seat vacated by Kenyatta Johnson – his own campaign staff.
Apparently, Roberts was attempting to pay his workers their promised $100 each by check - already a bad idea - when he then ran out of checks. As you can imagine, it got ugly. So ugly, in fact, that Roberts had to call the police to protect him from his own workers.
Let this week’s election serve as a cautionary tale for future office seekers: be careful whose money you take, have an actual platform to run on, and most importantly – make sure you have the cash on hand to pay up on Election Day.
Daryl Gale is the Philadelphia Tribune's city editor.
There were few surprises on Tuesday, April 24 as voters chose their party’s candidates for the November election. Typically, in this overwhelmingly Democratic city, local Democratic primary winners typically go on to win office in November.
Though the primary included a number of high offices, ranging from president and U.S. senator to state representative and attorney general, the vast majority of registered voters stayed home.
Turnout was recorded at 17.3 percent — almost exactly where it was in last spring’s primary.
“People weren’t too much concerned about the races going on,” said political consultant Maurice Floyd, noting that the national seats got all the attention, but with Rick Santorum’s withdrawal, the contest took on less urgency. “It just didn’t measure up in terms of generating a turnout.”
In low turnout elections, the support of a core bloc of dedicated voters is what delivers.
“The winners organized and they had a solid base going for them,” said Floyd.
As an example, he pointed to a much watched race – the 197th District – where J.P. Miranda won over Jewel Williams, the daughter of Sheriff Jewell Williams.
Miranda won 40 percent of the vote with 2,977 votes. That compared to 38 percent for Jewel, which translated to 2,519 votes.
“The ward leaders and the street organizers, they were able to outmaneuver and out-organize her,” he said.
Jewel’s campaign in the North Philadelphia district raised eyebrows because she seemed to rely largely on possible voter confusion between her and her father, who held the seat until January when he resigned to assume the post of sheriff. Jewel campaigned little. Her campaign office was reportedly empty most days.
Miranda had a history of political involvement. He worked for Council President Darrell Clarke and state Sen. Shirley Kitchen. In addition, in 2004 he worked for the John Kerry campaign. He also worked with the administration of Mayor Michael Nutter as it worked to help federal officials with the U.S. Census.
“I’m ecstatic,” Miranda said Wednesday. “North Philadelphia united against a lot of disgraceful acts by my opposition. People were very disgusted with some of things they were seeing.”
Miranda will now run against Steve Crum, the Republican, in the Nov. 6 election. Miranda is confident he’ll win.
“I’ve stayed on the pulse of the community,” he said, noting that his real focus will be on getting out the vote in November for himself, and for President Barack Obama.
In addition to choosing in the primary, voters in the 197th District had to select someone to serve for the remainder of Jewell’s term and decided on Gary Williams over former state senator and perennial candidate for mayor T. Milton Street.
From a party stand-point, perhaps the biggest was an upset was in race for state House in the 182nd Legislative District, which covers much of Center City. State Rep. Babette Josephs, who has held the seat since 1985 lost to newcomer Brian Sims, who will be the first openly gay member of the general assembly.
The vote was close, with Sims netting about 52 percent of the ballots to Josephs’ 48 percent.
Josephs was co-vice president of the city’s delegation in Harrisburg. She faced frequent challenges in recent years but managed to hang onto her seat.
That changed Tuesday evening.
According to preliminary results, Sims won with 3,661 votes. Josephs had 3,428.
“We set out from the very beginning to run the largest, cleanest, most involved campaign that we could,” Sims said in published reports. “We reached out to all four corners of this district for volunteers, for support, for help, and we were blessed to get it.”
Barring a write-in challenge from a Republican, which is extremely unlikely, Sims should take the seat in the fall.
That too was largely due to the loyalty of a bloc, Floyd said, noting that gay voters flocked to Sims rather than Josephs.
“They were the group that would normally put her over the top,” he said. “But, they basically went with the gay candidate.”
Another widely watched race was the 186th District, which was wide open, with three contenders seeking to fill the seat vacated by City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson.
Former Youth Commission won in a landslide victory – the widest margin seen in the city – with 76 percent of the district’s voters behind him.
“It’s just starting to sink in,” Harris said early Wednesday morning. “We put in a lot of hard work to get our message out to the community. The community has spoken loud and clear on the direction they want to go in. I’m just humbled and honored my community has that faith in me.”
With no Republican in the 186th race, Harris should sail through on Nov. 6.
Like Miranda, he said he plans on making sure voters hit the polls in November pushing the button for himself and for Obama.
Attorney Damon K. Roberts came in second with roughly 20 percent of the vote. He sought the seat before, and lost to Johnson. A third candidate, community activist Timothy Hannah came in third with about 5 percent of the vote.
Roberts’ biggest surprise of the evening was not his loss, but an incident that happened at around 10 p.m. at his Dickinson and South Broad streets headquarters. Roberts was forced to call police after he tried to pay staffers with checks rather than cash. When he ran out of checks, the crowd got ugly, and a melee started, forcing him to call police for his own protection.
He could not be reached for comment Wednesday. A police spokesperson said police arrived for a disturbance at 9:57 and remained on the scene until about 11 p.m. Poll volunteers were apparently promised $100 each, which Roberts was paying with the checks.
Voters in the 186th also participated in special election, choosing someone to fill out the remainder of Johnson’s term. They chose former state Rep. Harold James, who will return temporarily to his statehouse seat.
In most other races across the city, incumbents prevailed – including a contested three-person race in the Northwest section of the city where state Rep. Rosita Youngblood held on against Malik Boyd and Charisma Presley.
“People always underestimate Rosita,” Floyd said. “With her, there is not a lot of fanfare but she serves that district in a way that she’s entrenched.”
Youngblood got 47 percent of the vote compared to Presley’s 28 percent and Boyd’s 24 percent.
“Every time she’s run, she’s had a challenger or more - but ultimately she had been blessed again and again and again to come back and represent the people of the district,” said campaign spokeswoman Thera Martin-Milling.
In West Philadelphia, in a race that drew a lot of media attention and large political donations, challenger Fatimah Muhammad was still unable to beat incumbent Jim Roebuck.
“It didn’t matter,” Floyd said. “Roebuck has a solid core of supporters, and that’s what puts him over the top.”
Election results remain unofficial until the Pennsylvania State Department verifies them.
The phrase “school vouchers” seems to hit a nerve among three Democratic candidates for the state legislature — but it’s unclear if it’s the controversy of the vouchers themselves, or the money behind a drive to create a voucher program in Pennsylvania that makes them sweat.
Candidates in contested primary races for three open seats — the 188th, 186th and 190th — in the state House of Representatives support vouchers, at least in principle, a fact that has given them each a financial boost. All three contend that their support of vouchers is just part of a broad promise to improve access to education in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
“I’m not the pro-voucher, send money to private schools person some people are trying to paint me as,” said Jordan Harris, campaigning in the 186th, in a Tribune editorial board this week. “I support quality education across the board. For me, that means we empower parents with the opportunity to decide where their children go to school. The parents should decide where their tax dollars are going to go.”
Harris said he would suggest some changes to current voucher legislation before he could support it.
“I’m not totally sold on the legislation as it stands now,” he said, noting the legislation prohibits schools from accepting voucher money and later kicking out students.
“But, what I will say is that there needs to be additional options. Vouchers are a part of the educational tool box. I don’t think it is the tool box — and I think I’ve been mischaracterized.”
However, Harris has received money — $20,000 — from Students First, an organization with financial ties to one of his mentors, state Sen. Anthony Williams, as have two other candidates with districts that overlap Williams’ Senate District 8.
It’s a fact that makes separating the politics and the finances of the issue difficult.
Though the city is overwhelmingly Democratic, and vouchers are usually seen as a Republican issue, Williams has emerged as a vocal supporter of vouchers.
He was one of three state legislators to sponsor the voucher bill that Harris referred to, S.B. 1. It was approved by the state Senate last fall, and if passed in the House, would provide vouchers for low-income students in failing schools. It is still in the House, where it has been since October.
Williams drew attention not just for his position on vouchers, but also for the money his stance generated.
Money from Students First, which helped finance Williams’ failed run for governor, is now flowing into three contested House races in districts that overlap with Williams’ district in west, south and southwest Philadelphia.
The organization drew broad media attention after it gave Williams more than $5 million during his unsuccessful run for governor in 2010. The group’s financial backers include conservative hedge-fund managers Jeffrey Yass, Arthur Dantchik and Joel Greenberg.
They’ve opened their wallets again for candidates vying to be Williams’ colleagues in the state legislature.
In the 188th District, the group has given $25,000 to Fatimah Muhammad, who is challenging incumbent state Rep. James Roebuck, who has the backing of the teachers’ union and was publicly against Williams’ voucher bill. Another $10,000 was given to incumbent state Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown in the 190th District. She is facing two challengers, Wanda Logan and Audrey Blackwell-Watson, the daughter of the late Lucien Blackwell, who also served in the state House and is the step-daughter of City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell.
Muhammad said she didn’t know how much Students First had given her campaign.
“That is one of many organizations I’ve received money from,” she said. “As someone who’s new to politics, I can’t afford not to take money from anyone.”
The donation has not tied her hands on vouchers, she said.
“In this campaign vouchers have been used by my opponent to try and pigeonhole me in a particular area,” she said. “My stance is to keep everything on the table. I want parents at the center of this — not for political gain or anything. My stance has always been empowering parents.”
Like Harris, Muhammad said she couldn’t support S.B. 1, without some changes.
“I have concerns about that bill,” she said, reiterating that she could not be classified as a voucher supporter or opponent. “I’m not going to be pigeonholed. This is a terrible distraction.”
Muhammad, who recalled being homeless as a child, said that her tough experiences and hardships created in her a passion to help others who are underprivileged and underserved.
Despite her tough beginnings, Muhammad later graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with honors and said that it is now her wish to give back to others.
She received the endorsement this week of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity and the Guardian Civic League.
Brown said her support for vouchers was personal and had nothing to do with Students First.
“I work with Republicans every day,” she said. “There are some issues that we’re together on and some issues that we’re not. This just happens to be an issue that I’m very passionate about for personal reasons.”
Brown said before her election, she was a single, unemployed mom with a special needs child who wanted better for her son.
“It was early on that I saw that my child needed a lot more than the public schools were offering,” she said. “When I tried to send him to other schools, I could not afford those choices.”
While State Representative James Roebuck’s recent report and legislation is aimed at reforming the state’s charter school system - especially in light of several reports that have cast a pall of suspicion on numerous charter school operators – there are operators who view Roebuck’s legislation as an attack on properly run and executed alternative education programs.
Roebuck’s report and legislation, introduced last month, calls for a withdrawal of state funds from the charter school system, pointing to the obstacles and fiscal mismanagement of dozens of charter schools throughout the state.
“These investigations and incidents are often reported only in dribs and drabs, and I feel it’s important for Pennsylvania families and taxpayers to have an overall picture. The Democratic Education Committee report is drawn from credible sources such as the Philadelphia city controller, the Pennsylvania auditor general and news media across the state,” Roebuck said at the time. “It shows investigations or problems at 44 charter and cyber charter schools, including the six schools covered in the state auditor general’s report and the school that had its charter revoked and is set to close in three months. My understanding is that 37 of the 44 schools mentioned in our report are still operating.”
According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, as of the end of the 2012 school year, there are currently 162 operating charter schools in Pennsylvania, comprising 5.1 percent of all public schools throughout the commonwealth.
Philadelphia has, by far, the most charter schools, with 80 as of the end of 2012.
Proponents of the charter school system, such as Veronica Joyner, the founder and CEO of the successful Mathematics, Civics and Sciences Charter School, are dismayed by Roebuck’s legislation and the overall attacks on the charter school system. While it’s fair, Joyner contends, to hold charter schools to certain standards, what isn’t fair is that there is no twin bill or efforts to extract the same standards from traditional public schools.
Joyner points to the $500 drop in per-pupil funding for charter school students, the political interests of those slamming charter schools, and even race as the other mitigating factors in what has devolved into a friction between traditional public schools and the charter school system. Joyner said she was “appalled” by Roebuck’s legislation, and vowed to fight against it.
“This is very saddening. For the first time in the history of Philadelphia, poor and minority students and parents have an alternative to the public school system, and what’s happening is that parents are choosing charters because they are safer, students are learning more and have more order,” Joyner said, noting that School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Dr. William Hite Jr. recently visited Joyner’s school and came away impressed. “The charter schools have no unions, and now we have unions trying to get into charter schools, but their legacy is that they have [helped to] destroy public education.
“The district says the charters are taking money from them, but look at the big picture,” Joyner said. “The district had deficits well before the charter school legislation passed, but they weren’t educating the child. So why should the taxpayer pay for nothing?”
Joyner points to the decades of financial mishandling and the contracts that district signs with unions and other service providers as the main culprit for the district current economic malaise, and not the multi-million dollar kick-in the district pays into the charter school system every year.
“If you are a poor teacher, why should you continue to have your job, based solely on seniority? You will not find that in any other sector. The district just suspended two for cheating, but Roebuck said nothing about that, and [the district] just went through nearly a billion dollars,” said Joyner, whose school received a very high ranking from parent resource Great Philly Schools. “In education, you have thousands and thousands of students not being educated, and we don’t blame the teacher that has the child for six hours a day, five days a week? I am shocked that Roebuck would put this bill through when I have a lot of children in his own district whose parents don’t agree with the report.
“I’m surprised Roebuck would select charters for all of this transparency when he doesn’t call for it in public schools,” Joyner continued. “He should do a report that focuses on financial mismanagement by the school district. Instead of dealing with the problems, he’s using charter schools as the substitute.”
Calls to Roebuck’s Harrisburg office seeking comment on Joyner’s allegations weren’t returned as of Tribune press time.
While Joyner believes the attack on charter schools truly emanate from small districts in rural communities, the veteran educator saved her harshest critique for what she sees as an attack on educating black students – a violation that leaves Joyner seething.
“I taught in the system. The district received Title I money when children don’t achieve academically, and when a child is labeled mentally challenged, the district gets double the money. So they dumb down children and that becomes a controlling factor – when students can’t do math or read, they end up in the prison system,” Joyner said, comparing that system of control to slavery and adding that this whole public school-charter school argument is pointless, because the education of the child is paramount. “For the first time in history, we have black children moving forward, and now there’s no control over that underclass.
“Instead, [legislation and reports like this] victimizes us. I can’t tell you the things I have to deal with to educate these black children, and trying to get them through this city and to college,” Joyner continued. “As black people, we already know that if we don’t have an education, we are doomed to being poor. It’s about the children, and they should be educated by any means necessary, which includes public schools, charter schools, private schools and parochial schools.”
School reform efforts already underway will essentially accomplish many of the goals laid out in a new proposal released this week by Councilman Bill Green, said an official with Mayor Michael Nutter’s office.
“The mayor has not had an in-depth conversation with the councilman on this proposal,” said Nutter’s spokesman Mark McDonald. “He certainly appreciates new ideas being put forward. In this case, it appears that the compact that was just signed this week addresses the issues being raised by the councilman.”
Green vehemently disagreed, characterizing his plan not as a reform measure, but as a plan to implement “continuous improvement.”
“I’m not talking about reforming schools,” said Green. “Reform is folly. We need continuous improvement. Reform implies that once you do it, it’s done. I don’t understand how a compact between four entities improved test scores.”
Green’s proposal, released Wednesday, would split the school district in two and put a portion of city schools under the control of a school board appointed by the mayor, with the rest moving to state oversight along with other troubled schools across the state.
His suggestions came just one day after Nutter, state, district and charter school officials announced the formation of the Philadelphia Great Schools Compact, agreeing to share education strategies and methods at schools across the city in an effort to improve education.
“The mayor’s point of view is that, in terms of turning around low-performing schools, we have now a very robust compact signed by the commonwealth, the city, the school district and the charter associations. We think this is the way forward,” McDonald said.
Green argued that the compact would not create the sweeping change needed.
“What I would like to hear, if people think this is a bad idea, is, ‘How do you transform the way schools will work?’ Or do you think the incremental gains are going to move the dial?” he said. “They have to do something to change the way the schools are working.”
The councilman acknowledged that his proposal, in the form of a 12-page policy paper sent to Philadelphia’s state legislators, would be controversial.
State Rep. James Roebuck, chair of the House education committee, said he hadn’t had time to fully review the proposal.
“I haven’t seen it yet,” Roebuck said when asked for comment. Roebuck said he’d seen media reports but wanted to be better informed before commenting.
“I’m not entirely certain what he’s actually proposing,” he said.
Roebuck said he intended to thoroughly look over the policy paper and would respond then. State Sen. Anthony Williams, a member of the Senate education committee, could not be reached for comment.
It would take action by the state General Assembly and the governor to dismantle the district’s current oversight board, the School Reform Commission.
Since 2001, the School Reform Commission, a five-member panel appointed jointly by the mayor and the governor, had governed the district. The mayor appoints two members, the governor three, and the governor also has the authority to name the board chair.
The SRC was created as part of a state takeover of the district in an effort to improve slumping test scores and address perennial budget woes.
But reform efforts have not paid off, Green said.
Instead, the district is “stagnating,” said Green, comparing the situation to that of a ship beached on a sandbar and in danger of sinking.
“High tide is coming and time is running out to get seaworthy,” he wrote.
In his report, Green noted that fewer than half of the district’s schools — 46 percent — made adequate yearly progress in 2011, and that the district estimates that it will take more than a hundred years, until 2123, to get all students at grade level in reading and math.
Dividing the district would do two things, he argued. It would increase local control and accountability and remove local political hurdles from reform efforts needed to turn around the city’s worst schools, and bring the additional resources needed from the state.
In Green’s proposal, the school board, with members appointed by the mayor, would take control of the city’s best performing schools. The remainder would be placed under the control of a state authority charged with reforming them.
He compared his ideas to reform initiatives in Louisiana.
There, the state took over 77 schools, primarily in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, while letting individual districts continue to operate successful schools.
“The school district is too big to succeed,” said Green. “And, it has too many inconsistent and varying missions to be successful at all of them. We should just take the most difficult mission and give responsibility to a group that is dedicated to only that.”
Real reform is imperative, Green said, because the future of the city is a stake.
“We have to do something for the children who are in school today,” he said. “We’ve got five or six generations who will not have successful lives if we continue at the current pace of change.”
State Rep. James Roebuck, who recently submitted legislation aimed at reforming the finances and accountability for charter and cyber-charter schools, has withstood withering criticism from the charter school community — particularly from longtime educator and charter school operator Veronica Joyner — for submitting statutes that they say cripple charters while not addressing the parallel issues in the traditional public school system.
While Roebuck understands the criticism, and to some degree has come to expect and welcome it, he will not tolerate misperceptions about his bill, particularly the assertion that he is somehow trying to limit school choice for those that need it most – the poor and minority families trapped in the cycle of school closings and spiraling in-school violence permeating traditional public schools.
“That [assertion] is simply not true. My intent is to ensure that we develop good educational opportunities for all students. The bill I offered is not aimed at any way toward the charter school community,” Roebuck said, noting that nearly ten similar charter school reform bills have been introduced and will be considered by the House. “My intent is to try and identify problems where they exist, be it in traditional, charter or cyber charters, and resolve them.
“I am vigilant to correct problems in both [school systems].”
At issue is Roebuck’s combined charter reform bill and detailed report, “Charter and Cyber Charter School Reform Update and Comprehensive Reform Legislation,” which outlines several issues revolving around charters, including the lack of overall accountability. Roebuck’s release also details how much the state, and by extension, the responsible school districts, could save if these reforms take place.
“What is clear is that these schools are facing several financial challenges, to the point where there is a lack of transparency and accountability. I want to make sure the tax dollars we’re spending goes to the education of children,” Roebuck said, adding that he felt “offended” by the sentiment that he would do anything that would hurt the educational opportunities for minority families and children – citizens he communicates with frequently from his West Philadelphia offices.
“That’s not my intent and it has never been my intent,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that [Joyner] chose that line of response; we might disagree on substance, but to say to my intent is to deny any students educational choice is false.”
Roebuck is not alone in calling for a reassessment of charter school operations and is hardly the first to demand reforms. In fact, a recent report by Public Citizens for Children and Youth seems to buttress Roebucks’ claims, as it shows that many area charter schools, and specifically those coming up for renewal, have fallen below district averages. The problems are so insidious, PCCY officials say, that many of the charters do not accept special education, English as a Second Language (ESL) students or extremely low-income students.
“We cannot ignore these factors,” PCCY Executive Director Donna Cooper said. “City-wide charters should reflect the realities of the District’s student population. We should operate with common goals. All schools should be accessible to all students and at a minimum showing academic output as strong as the district.”
According to the report, The PSSA results of the 16 charters seeking renewal indicate that one charter has academic results that are lower than the district’s average results for at least the last two years. Low test scores are one indicator that the school is unable to offer its students the educational opportunity promised by the charter operator.
The report also found that one charter school has a Special Education enrolled rate that is a third of the district’s rate, another has a rate that is nearly half the district’s enrollment rate, and five others have special education rates that are significantly less than the district average; the report also shows that 13 of the charter schools have fewer than 2 percent English Language Learners compared to the district average of 8 percent, and nine of the charter schools serve fewer low income students than the district average.
PCCY also called on the SRC to protect the district’s fiscal condition and permit charter enrollment expansion only if there are unused charter slots or by reassigning those that may become available due to closure, along with agreeing to proceed with charter expansion, only if comes in tandem with enrollment expansion in high-quality district schools.
“I think the reality is, you have some good charter schools and not so good charters, and you have good traditional public schools and not so good one,” Roebuck said. “Some parents have found that charters are the way to go for their child, but on the other hand, I’ve had parents who have not had the same [positive] experience with charters.
“It has created a second educational system that mirrors the traditional public school system.”
Lastly, Roebuck took exception with those who apparently forgot what the charter school legislation was initially intended to do: formulate an alternative method for educating the youth, one with checks, balances and total transparency.
“Here in Harrisburg, we’ve had some charter school operators who wanted to take out the ‘innovative’ language in their contracts. But the reality is, if you go back to 1997 when we passed the charter school legislation, it was to create different models of delivering education to students,” Roebuck said. “I do think there are great charter school models out there, but there has been no consistent effort to replicate what works.”
One of the schools is Joyner’s own Mathematics, Civics, and Sciences Charter School which Roebuck said he had visited previously and came away impressed.
“I’ve visited [Joyner’s] school, and she has a good school; but I don’t know of efforts to replicate it,” Roebuck said, placing most of the systemic failure at the feet of Gov. Tom Corbett, whose administration, Roebuck says, is exacerbating the situation by not reimbursing the district the millions in funds the district pays into the local charter school system – a decision that is at least partly responsible for this district’s current financial malaise.
“The state is supposed to provide fair and equal education for all, but what has hurt the system the most is the failure of the state to provide adequate level of funding,” he said.