Tom Ferrick, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist during his time at the Inquirer, wrote an excellent summary of the history of charter schools in Philadelphia earlier this week that is well worth your time. To summarize, charter schools came to fruition in 1997 as then-Governor Tom Ridge sought to brandish the badge of "education reformer" while he set his sights on higher political goals. Although Ridge's coveted voucher program was defeated with the help of public school advocates and teachers' unions across the state, a consolation prize "charter school law" was passed in Harrisburg (mainly because the very idea of charters was still fairly new in 1997). Little did anyone realize that charters would bloom so quickly in Philadelphia - growing from the first charter established in the city, Community Academy of Philadelphia, to the nearly 60,000 pupils currently enrolled in over 80 charters today.
As of 2013, Pennsylvania has approximately 170 charter schools (you can download the list here), the vast majority of which are located in urban districts throughout the state - over half in Philadelphia. In fact, when charters have tried to open in relatively wealthy suburban, low-immigrant, majority white school districts, they have been shot down time and time again. Just check out the above-mentioned list. (Ignore the highlighted blue schools which indicate cyber-charter schools and, therefore, can enroll students anywhere in the state). This "Better not open a charter in my School District!" scenario, along with inevitable charter rejection, plays out every year all throughout Bucks and Montgomery Counties, just as it did last year in North Penn. Even extremely popular and relatively successful charter schools in Philadelphia, like MaST, are shot down once they try to expand outside of the city. Why?
Do you really need an answer
Charters divert funds from the public schools in two manners. They drain resources as the money follows the students who leave and also create a lower demand for the tuition-based private schools in that district. This is exactly what has happened in Philadelphia as Catholic schools are rapidly shrinking (causing the District to pick up the tab) and district buildings go underutilized while still incurring the same upkeep costs (you can't heat half a school, even if enrollment has dropped by half). In fact, since the advent of charters in Philadelphia, Catholic school enrollment has shrunk by 35% and the Archdiocese has closed over 80 schools as the School District of Philadelphia struggles to pick up the added cost of more students with no additional funding from the city and state. (Ironically, mostly charters have purchased these shuttered Catholic school buildings - with publicly-funded dollars of course.) No wonder those well-off suburban districts steer clear of charter expansion!
What about Philadelphia? Well, Philly schools have, over years and years of bad oversight and management, been written off as "bad schools" that need to be reformed... "So why not enroll my kids in a charter school!!" (Wait a minute, didn't we just establish that they drain a district's finances even further?) Charters, in Philadelphia at least, have the REPUTATION of being better simply because - frankly - they aren't Philly schools. Charters, as a whole, perform no better or worse than Philadelphia public schools. A number of studies have shown this, such as this one from 2008 "The analysis indicates that students' average gains attending charter schools are statistically indistinguishable from the gains they experience while at traditional public schools." Don't get me wrong - there are good charter schools and there are bad charter schools JUST AS there are excellent Philly public schools (some of the best in the state!) and bad public schools. So, why do many parents line up for charter schools while they malign the public school down the street? Basically, they have a better marketing strategy and are able to more successfully "sell" their product (unlike what the School District of Philadelphia is currently doing with this fiscal showdown fiasco).
So where's the problem? Again, it comes down to the money. All of the money that goes through public school districts is carefully recorded, accounted for and, if discrepancies arise, audited. Books are kept. I wish I could say the same about charter schools. Charters have free reign because the state and city charter-oversight offices are woefully understaffed and underfunded. For example, only three of those over 80 Philly charters have even been audited since 2008. In fact, Harrisburg is full of lobbyists pushing for laws to make it even EASIER to open charter schools instead of focusing on increased state supervision. If you want to make a quick buck with taxpayer money and disguise it as helping out those "poor urban" kids, why not open up a charter school? Come on... Everyone's doing it! With such poor oversight, who's going to stop you? I bet, even the director of the Philadelphia Parking Authority - that "great educator" of children, pun intended - wants his own charter! (In fact, HE DOES. I kid you not.)
This all leads me, finally, to this week's news. As you read these highlights, keep in mind that this money should be going to a School District that is in the hole $300million - a District asking its teachers to give $133million in labor concession.
- Where has all the PA education money gone? Why not ask the founder of PA's largest cyber charter school... which syphons off even more money from traditional public schools than brick-and-mortar charters because PA law reimburses them the same amount per pupil, even though it's significantly cheaper to educate a student online. Well, the FBI recently discovered that the founder and former CEO of PA Cyber (while producing horrible academic results) stole "more than $8 million from the school through a network of companies, then scheming with his accountant to avoid income taxes." Among other things, he even had the audacity to buy a $1 million Florida condominium and houses for his girlfriend and mother, along with nearly $1 million in personal expenses, including groceries. All of this, of course, made possible because charter schools don't have the same oversight as district-run schools.
- That first charter established in the city all the way back in 1997... Community Academy of Philadelphia? It has a history of ridiculously high salaries, charges of nepotism, and fund mismanagement while producing poor academic results and collecting over $20million in public tax money. This week, the school secretary that informed on them to the Feds back in 2009 finally settled her whistle-blowing lawsuit. Charges against the charter are still pending.
- The President of Harambee Charter School, another of the city's oldest charters dating to 1997, was charged with using his position to steal nearly $90,000.
- ASPIRA Inc of PA, the operator of 5 charters here in Philadelphia and one of the city's largest, was recently audited. It was discovered that they had shuffled around $3.3 million of public tax money towards private debt-service and a property purchasing entity. "...the network’s combined real-estate holdings increased from $13.34 million in 2011 to $23.15 million in 2012, according to the audit." Meanwhile, just a few months ago, it was disclosed that ASPIRA was spending a publicly-funded $17,094 in legal fees to discourage its staff at the newly acquired Olney Charter High from forming a union.
- Finally, although this does not have to do with Philadelphia, the New York Times did a piece earlier this week on how charter schools across the country prefer younger and less-experienced teachers. It profiled the numerous charters that encourage teachers to leave within 5 years, making them a perfect match for Teach For America and other "resume building" teacher programs. Even though numerous studies have concluded that more experienced teachers coupled with staff stability and less teacher turnover produce the best academic results for students, these charters throw that research out the window. Instead, they once again look at the bottom line: costs and profits.