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Something that can be said for districts

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

To the blizzard (oh, just a word that came to mind) of questions being asked on these pages about the Renaissance School plan, I’d like to add a legal worry. It has to do with the enthusiasm for spinning schools off to become charters or “contract” schools, operated by private managers.

One can say lots of justifiably critical things about school districts, and about this one in particular. But to those who believe the response to failures by this (or any) school district should be to remove schools from its control, I suggest some caution.

One thing that school districts can do, and can even do well, is make sure that schools meet basic legal requirements, such as rules related to serving students with disabilities, meeting the needs of English language learners, treating students fairly in disciplinary situations, and so forth. That’s not to say, by any means, that this district has always done a good job in those areas. But when we compare the job that the District does (or, better yet, could do if it worked at it) with what sometimes happens when schools are left to oversee themselves, we may start to wish we had the District back.

A new study from the University of Colorado reports that, nationally, charter schools operated by education management organizations are more racially and economically segregative, serve lower proportions of children with disabilities, and enroll fewer English language learners than the schools in their districts. The study doesn’t offer an explanation, but I think one factor may be that there was no longer a school district in the picture to enforce the rules.

I don’t have figures on the extent to which existing charters in Philadelphia enroll students with disabilities and ELLs – but I’ve certainly heard of schools that cut corners, or worse, on one or both counts. And as for discipline, I could cite quite a few instances in which charters have been quick to permanently expel students (“he can always go back to a regular public school”) for behavior that, in a District-operated school, would have resulted in a less drastic penalty and, perhaps, a much-needed referral for special services

So, you’re thinking, these problems won’t arise in Philly-Renaissance-charter schools, because one of the ground rules is that they will be composed of the same children who attended the school B. R. (Before Renaissance). Maybe that’s right, and maybe it’ll still be true a year from now. Or maybe, once they assume control, some charter managers will start to operate in ways that gradually change the composition of the school – by permanently expelling students for minor offenses, by limiting special education services (or counseling families to take their child elsewhere), by not keeping up with the demand for programs for English language learners, and so forth.

This isn’t about bashing charters or private operators. I know some great ones. Nor is it about whether schools should have more autonomy — in general, I think they should. But I also know that, when no one is looking to see whether rules are being followed, there will always be people who find it convenient to bend – or ignore – those rules. So I worry about the rush to completely remove schools from District control. When it comes to fundamental legal requirements, it can be helpful to have someone keeping an eye on things.

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