Barely a week has passed since the School Reform Commission publicized its controversial, “Blueprint for Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools,” and charter school leaders are letting it be known they will fight any plan that attacks per-pupil funding or forces charters schools to adopt an enrollment cap.
Specifically, charter school educators are taking umbrage with the SRC’s plan to slash $149 million from charter school funding, which represents a whopping seven percent drop in per-pupil funding. The plan also calls for a three-year freeze on per-pupil payments, and finally, the enforcement of a mutually agreed upon growth schedule. SRC officials believe it can balance its budget in five years if these and other cuts are implemented.
“In my view, the [budget] issue should not be balanced on the backs of charter schools. The reality is, I don’t go along with that, and it’s not acceptable,” said state Representative Dwight Evans, who was among the leaders of the charter school movement nearly two decades ago, when he introduced legislation supporting the charter model. “First, let’s be clear, this is supposed to be about kids and parents, and there’s nothing in the law that gives the SRC the legal ability to [arbitrarily reduce payments]. There is nothing in the act, one way or the other, for the district to do this.”
Evans was referring to the Act 22 Charter School Legislation of 1997, and most charter proponents point to subsection 17-1723 (d), which states that, “enrollment of students in a charter school or cyber charter school shall not be subject to a cap or otherwise limited to any past or future action of a board of school directors … or any other authority, unless agreed to by the charter school or cyber charter school as part of a written charter.”
“We fought 15 years to get that law passed; 15 years we fought for the parents to have options, and we won’t let the school district mess with the kids,” Evans said, crediting longtime educator and attorney Dr. Walter D. Palmer as being an early leading protagonist of the cause. “The school district has its own ineptness, but we will not let them do this.
“Politically, they must not think of bringing this through Harrisburg, because I wouldn’t support it,” Evans said.
Palmer, at the forefront of the charter issue for almost three decades and who served as major supporter of the mid-’90s legislation, recently took the school district to court over the district’s attempts to cap enrollment at his successful Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School. According to Palmer, the school district has unfairly targeted the charter school system while ignoring both the achievements and gains made by the charters — and the district’s own mismanagement of resources and funds.
“The district has been repressive to charter schools for at least ten years,” Palmer said, placing much of the blame of the perceived public school — charter school friction at the feet of former superintendent Arlene Ackerman and former SRC chairman Robert Archie. “All of this is really an all-out assault on the charter school movement, but [the SRC] cannot circumvent the court.”
Palmer has defied the SRC’s cap measure by continuing to accept students, and billing the state directly. Twice, Palmer said, the courts have agreed with him, and ruled the district must reimburse Leadership Learning more than $1.3 million in outstanding per-pupil payments. The district is currently exhausting its appeals in that matter and Palmer expects a ruling sometime next month.
Palmer recently testified in a City Council hearing helmed by City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who is also the chair of Council’s education committee. There, Palmer made a series of suggestions to the SRC that he believes would help correct the problem.
“I suggested one of the things they do is completely dismantle renaissance schools, which are not charters. They are failed public schools that are reconstituted by the district and controlled by the district, but they then ask a charter school operator to come in and operate them; they are not charter schools,” Palmer said. “Then, I suggested they take those schools and turn them into promise academies. I also said they need to consolidate the mothballed schools; you have William Penn High School on Broad Street that’s sitting empty and costs a fortune to maintain.”
Some of the plans Palmer and other educators suggested — some going back years, if not decades — have finally made their way into the SRC’s reorganization blueprint, such as downsizing the central office; decentralizing certain services and generally trying to trim operations. But the decision to make these cuts came years after continual warnings.
Palmer said the school district really doesn’t have an excuse; the charter school legislation has been in place since 1997, and instead of working in conjunction with charter schools, it seems to him the district is bent on destroying them.
“Stop trying to bash charter schools,” Palmer said. “What we are experiencing now is a white hostile takeover of Black education in America. Folks have realized there are millions and millions to be made [in corporate education] right in the heart of the Black community, and this is happening in urban Black districts with Black folks on their watch.”
The issue of capped enrollment is very real; and doesn’t just affect Philadelphia and its stable of charter schools, as the Chester Upland Charter School recently won the right to uncapped enrollment. Basically, if a charter school is allowed uncapped enrollment, it can then theoretically build other schools to house the added enrollment, provided they meet staffing, safety and academic guidelines.
“They’ve gotten to a point where the school district is bankrupt; why should charters have to pay for the school district’s inability to manage its budget?” said Dr. Veronica Joyner, founder and chief administrative officer of the Mathematics, Civics and Sciences Charter School of Philadelphia. “And now, [the SRC] is giving us less. Are they expecting the charters to fail, since they are taking money away instead of rewarding us?”
Like Palmer’s school, MCSCS has made Adequate Yearly Progress in consecutive years, and both its financial and academic records are strong. Joyner, like Palmer, is worried about the possibility of working with fewer funds.
“I am totally concerned about that,” said Joyner, who also serves as president and founder of Parents United for Better Schools, Inc. “The school district already takes almost 30 percent of the allotment given to us by the state. Now they want us to contribute more money when it’s not our failure. Charters are doing good, and there should be more support, not less.”
Joyner said she has a waiting list 7,000-plus students’ strong, which points to the academic prowess of her school. She believes that charters are a unique educational necessity that warrants saving.
“We’re talking about a school district that has failed,” Joyner said. “That budget didn’t just creep up on them like that — it’s been creeping up on them for years, and I am appalled no one saw that and did anything about it. We are already operating on much less than the public schools do. Now they are going to cut us, and expect us to do a better job with less.
“This is not fair to charter school operators, or the families we serve,” Joyner continued. “Because we are expected to do a better job than public schools — and we’ve shown that we are capable of doing that — we should have more support.”
Instead of aiming at charter schools, Joyner said, more attention should be paid to the district’s hierarchy and its plans for a new leader, since direction will no doubt come from on high. Joyner has been in education for more than 40 years, and senses a recurring pattern by the SRC.
“The district usually goes outside of Philadelphia to find a superintendent, and that has always been its first failure,” Joyner said. “My concern is we keep getting people who, on paper, can do these things, but come in and leave the district in a worse state. There are people right here in Philadelphia who can lead the district. I question [the SRC’s] motives.”
Cuts to public school programming, a shortage of nurses and the recent dismissal of more than 90 security personnel equal the last straw for Parents United For Better Schools and its president and founder, Veronica Joyner.
“We are concerned with the drastic cuts by the district to bridge its budgeting gap,” Joyner said during a press conference Tuesday outside School District of Philadelphia headquarters on North Broad Street. “This is a very sad day, and parents need to be outraged. Our children’s safety is at stake.”
Fellow education advocate Dr. Walter D. Palmer, founder of the Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School, joined Joyner at the podium.
District spokesman Fernando Gallard recently announced that 91 per diem members of the security force were laid off; 82 were notified and dismissed last week, while the remaining nine positions will be terminated at the end of the school year.
“We are trying to meet a budget gap, which leaves little of what we can do to improvise savings in a very short period of time,” Gallard said. “We still have 386 sworn officers, and that, in combination with rolling units that will visit schools that do not have a [stationary] officer, will be sufficient, we believe.
“These are very difficult choices, and choices we don’t want to make.”
Joyner, who is also the founder and chief administration officer for The Mathematics, Civics and Sciences Charter School, is most concerned about the security of both students and teachers alike, and points to the number of incidents — reported or not — as proof that the district needs to do more in securing said safety.
“There are 6,000 reported incidents [in public schools] every day,” Joyner said, noting that there were an untold number of grave incidents that went unreported. “A teacher at Frankford was attacked twice by students. Soon, with these cuts, schools will be out of control, and I am concerned that we may have to report a death” if something isn’t done.
Joyner, for her part, also sent a letter to Chief Inspector Myron Paterson, who oversees the security detail for the district. In it, she referenced the Blue Ribbon Commission On Safe Schools report, which found that “there is no more important issue to parents, students and staff than school safety. In the hierarchy of needs, it understandably outranks academic performance because without safety, fear increases, parent confidence is eroded, and teaching and learning are undermined … the School District of Philadelphia cannot suspend or expel its way out of the problem of school violence.”
The report also found that on any given day, 25 students, teachers and staff members were assaulted in each school, that the district fails to consistently reports these incidents and the district doesn’t provide adequate counseling for victims.
Palmer, who has been involved with education for almost half a century, believes the district is looking to make cuts in the wrong places in order to save itself.
“Instead of the human cuts, look at the property cuts,” Palmer said. “The school district has 264 schools, and have millions tied up in [obsolete] buildings.”
Palmer has pitched his idea that the district should spin off its most dangerous and unproductive schools into independent, community-based charter schools. Doing that, Palmer said, would lead to better neighborhood ownership of the education neighborhood kids receive, and will also free up much-needed dollars for the district.
“The district needs a whole change in attitude,” Palmer said. “Charters could help the public schools. They are trying to save the bureaucracy and structure [of the school district], but you cannot keep cutting personnel, because you will end up cutting the culture of safety.”
While the School District of Philadelphia may not quite be in its death throes as a result of a thousand cuts, its recently announced decision to slash after-hours programs, and to eliminate weekend hours altogether will hurt plenty.
The district has deemed these cuts necessary to close the gargantuan $61 million budget gap by June.
“We are moving forward with the plan to curtail evening hours. Usually, our buildings are open until 9 p.m., and we will curtail that by an hour,” said district spokesman Fernando Gallard. “That means the programs that are running in those buildings have to either run an hour shorter or [we have to] shift the programming an hour earlier.
“We are also closing the buildings for the weekends, so those running programs will not be able to unless they can pay for the costs of opening the building.”
In other words, community groups and others who have had free use of the district’s buildings will now have to pay. That goes for everything from weekend chess and basketball clubs to ESL and music programs during the week.
“This does not mean that schools will not be allowed to have programming,” Gallard said. “Each school (or programming sponsor) that pays for the extra time can use it.”
Gallard said the district is making everyone pay their fair share — noting that the individual schools pay the district for staffing and administering the programs, along with other logistics — but that doesn’t make the decision any more palatable for those involved in educating the city’s youth.
“Well, I think this is very sad; it’s obvious that if these groups had the money, it wouldn’t even be a question, but we know these community groups don’t have the money,” said Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, chair of the City Council Education Committee. “Schools and recreational centers are the only places they have in the community. The mayor recently talked about youth violence and compar[ed] it to the Ku Klux Klan, but I remember W.E.B. DuBois wrote that a community in trouble will soon turn on itself, and if we have kids with nothing to do and no recreation centers, it will foster more of the violence we are currently seeing.”
Many educators see these cuts — coupled with the district’s recent gutting of its security force, along with news of the district’s lack of nurses — as sending the wrong message to school children.
“So what are we going to do with these kids after school?” mused Veronica Joyner, the founder and chief administrative officer of the Mathematics, Civics and Sciences Charter School, Inc. on North Broad Street. “All these programs were put in place to give kids a safe haven. Now, they will hang on street corners, and it will probably lead to more break-ins and more violence in the community.
“The violence in the city, for and by youth, will increase,” Joyner added. “… which is contrary to Mayor Nutter, who is trying to get rec centers to stay open for the kids. This is contrary to what schools are supposed to do.”
Joyner will hold a press conference today in front of district headquarters to talk about the impact of these cuts. And she is dismayed that the state is decreasing its educational funding while building new jails.
“We’ve cut schools, but invested in three new prisons” throughout the state, Joyner said. “So the money they take from schools is going to the prisons.”
“I think it’s a Band-Aid approach,” said Dr. Walter D. Palmer, a longtime educational advocate who founded the Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School in North Philadelphia. “They’re laying nurses off, laying police off; it’s all about cutting as opposed to being proactive.”
The apparent conflict between the district’s mandate to educate the city’s youth and its obligation to trim its budget gap is glaring. Gallard has said these rounds of cuts will save the district $2.5 million, but for some, those cuts will come with a hefty price.
“Old folks say ‘penny-wise, pound-foolish;’ that $2.5 million could save lives,” Blackwell said. “I know our leaders mean well, but what does it really save?”
Joyner believes that the expenses accrued by saving the $2.5 million will end up costing tax payers more on the back end, if one factors in the costs of prosecuting, incarcerating and rehabilitating the youth who get arrested or otherwise find trouble without the existence of neighborhood rec centers.
Black Men at Penn, Inc. President Chad Lassiter echoed Joyner’s concerns.
“It’s going to have a detrimental effect on the youth; we’re saying we want young people to stay out of trouble and be involved in positive things — but now we’re turning our backs on them by closing these after-school programs and rec centers,” said Lassiter, also a longtime social worker, educator and advocate who focuses on the ramifications of various social policies as they relate to minorities. “I think [these cuts] are appalling … the same way we can find money to buy out an underperforming superintendent, you can find the same money to fulfill the promise of a better future for our children.”
But is it possible for the district to balance its books without encumbering the learning and social enrichment of its students? Probably not without some help — but Lassiter has an idea.
“I think we need to have our civic, philanthropic, business and sports communities intersect with one another to find the money to keep these valuable programs going in an era when young people need these quality programs the most,” Lassiter said. “There’s no time for excuses; it’s time to leverage professional relationships to put up the money to continue to foster hope.”
Council urged to block mayor’s recent order
Mayor Michael Nutter may have bitten off more than he can chew with his new ban on feeding the homeless in public parks. Opponents of the policy, enacted last month, flooded City Council’s meeting Thursday to ask council to somehow block the ban.
They accused the mayor of trying to curtail their religious freedom, their civil rights and of contradicting the teachings of Christ. Nutter, citing health and sanitary concerns, and worries about personal dignity and access to services, recently announced a policy that bans large scale feeding of the homeless in public parks. It forces food donors to serve meals indoors — at places where the homeless may also have access to the services many of them need.
No one who spoke at Thursday’s council meeting supported the mayor.
“Would it be sanitary, would it give dignity to have homeless people eat out of trash cans and dumpsters?” asked Veronica Joyner, founder of the Mathematics, Civics and Sciences Charter School, where students are required to help feed the homeless as part of the school’s curriculum.
According to statistics read by Joyner to council members, there are about 13,000 homeless people in Philadelphia. Joyner noted that many are veterans and have substance abuse problems.
Joyner and about 10 of her students were part of a group of more than 30 people, many of whom brought their Bibles and quoted from them, who signed up to speak during the meeting.
All of the speakers supported Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell’s call for council to hold hearings on how the policy would affect the homeless. Many wanted council to go a step further and block the policy.
Blackwell introduced a resolution two weeks ago calling for hearings on the issue. A vote was expected Thursday. But, as the meeting started to take on the air of a church service, complete with one man — Reggie Marrow — singing during his allotted time, Council President Darrell Clarke, after a quiet sidebar with Blackwell, ended all speeches on the topic.
“We get your point,” Clarke said.
In the end, Blackwell held the resolution, delaying a vote for at least one more week.
“We decided to hold it such that if we wanted to amend it, or can work out some compromise, that we get another opportunity to do that,” she told reporters after the meeting.
It was a move that will also keep the pressure on the mayor.
“Certainly as long as it’s on the calendar, the public has the right to come and say what they think,” she said.
The mayor’s s office said the policy is not official and wouldn’t be until after administration hearings.
“The Parks and Recreation Commissioner will have a hearing in the near future on the proposed regulation,” said Nutter’s spokesman Mark McDonald. “Thereafter there is a process lasting a number of weeks before the reg is official … the administration … will be creating a taskforce of stakeholders to work toward bringing all outdoor food serving into more dignified and safer indoor settings.”
If Blackwell’s resolution passes, council’s Committee on Housing, Neighborhood Development and the Homeless will hold hearings on the impact of the ban. What steps she might take after that depend on the findings.
Council cannot compel the mayor to rescind his policy, Blackwell noted, but hearings would increase political pressure on the mayor to rethink it.
According to the Rev. Brian Jenkins, pastor of Chosen 300 Ministries, coalition of churches across the city has been formed to oppose the policy.
The group takes exception to Nutter’s policy on several grounds.
Jenkins said it was a violation of civil rights.
“Separate but equal was abolished in 1954,” he said.
For Erica Moulinier, it stepped on her right to worship freely.
“It creates bureaucratic barriers to compassion,” she said. “For many of us, feeding is not only an act of compassion, but an act of faith.”
Adam Bruckner, founder of Philly Restart, a group dedicated to feeding the homeless, even took offense to the mayor’s choice of words – when Nutter announced the new policy he used the phrase “outdoor feeding.”
Feeding is for farms,” Bruckner said. “We serve meals.”
One man tied the new rule to the opening of the new Barnes Foundation on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
“It really looks like an attempt to hide the homeless,” said Brett Anderson, who then quoted the Bible. “For I was hungry, and you gave me nothing to eat.”
Nutter announced the ban in mid-March. At the time, he also said the administration would come up with a new, long-term approach to feeding the hungry within 90 days.
The mayor pitched the policy as one centered on public health and safety concerns, and as way to assist people needing food and shelter.
“Aside from the dignity provided by sitting down at a given time in a given place for a nutritious meal, an indoor location enables the city and its partners to offer health, mental health, housing, a place to receive mail and other needed services to this very vulnerable population,” Nutter said at the time.
Nutter added that until the many groups that feed the homeless outside and those that have indoor facilities can coordinate their activities, the outdoor groups can feed people on the apron at city hall.
Large scale feeding, which used to happen in Love Park and on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway near the Family Court building have been moved to the apron.
In other news, council passed resolutions honoring fallen firefighters Lt. Robert Neary and Daniel Sweeney, who were killed Monday while fighting a fire in an empty warehouse in Kensington. Both men were killed after a wall in an adjacent building collapsed on them.
Council unanimously passed a resolution honoring the memory and service of each man with a standing vote.
Finally, council also passed a resolution “calling for justice” in the Trayvon Martin case.
The resolution, introduced by Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown two weeks ago, passed just one day after Martin’s accused killer George Zimmerman was arrested, and 45 days after the incident that resulted in Martin’s death.
“Two weeks ago … we did not know whether the family would ever see this day,” Brown said. “We now know they will be given their day in court. We will all be given the opportunity to find out just what happened on Feb. 25.”
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.”
Funds promised until mid-March, but hurdles remain
Like the stock market, the School District of Philadelphia is ending the week on a high note. Now it must sustain the momentum generated by two developments that directly impact public schools and the service they provide to the city’s youth.
First, Mayor Nutter announced a plan to consolidate the services offered in 83 school buildings down to 48. The city will also pay $175,000 to keep programs running through March 17, giving various sports and academic leagues enough time to complete their current seasons.
“I am extremely pleased that we were able to work with our partners at the school district, led by Chief Recovery Officer Tom Knudsen, to save winter programming for the kids in our city,” Nutter said during a press conference on Wednesday in City Hall’s Conversation Room. “It is vital to the welfare of our youth that we continue to offer safe, constructive sports activities in school facilities in their neighborhoods.”
Earlier this month, the school district announced that, in order to close a multi-million budget gap, it had sliced the weekday hours of building availability, and ended weekend access altogether. That plan saved the district more than $2 million. The “Programs in Schools” program now allows for the 48 schools to have extended hours. A list of these schools are available on the city’s website, www.Phila.gov.
The cuts to recreational programming caused outrage amongst the city’s education advocates. Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, chair of council’s education committee, joined charter school founders Veronica Joyner and Dr. Walter D. Palmer in voicing their extreme displeasure with the plan.
“We are very, very happy to have found a mutual point of agreement to make it work, not only for the school district, but for the children and adults who use our facilities,” said School District of Philadelphia spokesman Fernando Gallard. “I think it’s great that we have found a way to move forward.”
Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, co-chair of council’s education committee, was impressed with the way city politicians and school district officials worked the deal.
“It was one of my most proudest moments, when the leadership of the school district, the mayor and Council President Darrell Clarke stood unanimously, enthusiastically and collegially on the same page with regard to the current crisis by not eliminating programs,” Brown said, noting that there will be a school district budget hearing in eight weeks.
Now, it appears both the city and district have at least partially addressed the issue; what happens after March 17 remains to be seen, but for now, all parties are content, especially given the alternative.
“This proposal preserves a wide variety of needed programs for thousands of children, youth and families,” said Michael DiBerardinis, Commissioner of the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department, who also serves as Deputy Mayor for Environment and Community Resources. “These programs are at the very heart of our work, they are central to the mission of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation.”
That mission may have received a boost that will pay off in the long-term. In a second and apparently unrelated development, the school district recently announced that, although its budget gap increased from the previously disclosed $61 million deficit to $70.8 million (due in part to costs associated with early retirements and separations), the district did realize cost-cutting measures which lopped off $32 million.
“Included in the $32 million were recently announced savings from non-represented employees salary and benefits adjustments, curtailing of school building hours of operations, reduction in the number of per diem school police officers and cutbacks to summer school programs,” stated the district through a statement. “The district remains committed to continue to realign its delivery of services to schools in order to achieve the greatest savings and efficiencies with as minimum an impact as it is possible to classrooms.”
“This too is very good news,” Gallard said of slicing the budget gap nearly in half. “We still have a long way to go with not very much time, but I am confident we can do it, and we are working hard every day to identify savings.
“You cannot underline enough the effort the whole team is making, not just at the district, but at the schools as well, where they are willing to work with less resources.”
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.