This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
by Benjamin Herold
for the Notebook/WHYY’s NewsWorks
The Notebook/NewsWorks’ coverage of the Great Schools Compact continues
with a preview of Monday’s SRC meeting. Last week, we took a look inside a
high-performing charter on the verge of expansion and talked to Mark
Gleason, the executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership.
Proponents of traditional public schools are expressing growing concern that the Philadelphia Great Schools Compact could end up favoring charters and being a raw deal for the School District.
On Monday, they’ll get the chance to voice their worries before the School Reform Commission, which plans to highlight the compact at its March strategy, policy, and planning meeting.
On paper, the far-reaching Great Schools agreement calls for closing or transforming low-performing schools and supporting and expanding successful schools, whether District-run or charter. But many are worried that in practice, the compact, led by a committee that some accuse of being “charter-heavy,” is functioning primarily as a vehicle for expanding charter schools.
“I see [the compact] as just another way of punishing traditional public schools,” said teachers’ union President Jerry Jordan. “This is about increasing the number of charter schools in the city of Philadelphia.”
Lori Shorr, the city’s chief education officer and the chair of the “Great Schools Compact Committee,” hopes that Monday’s discussion before the SRC can help allay some of those concerns.
Shorr said she expects a “messy” conversation in which the SRC will welcome a wide range of input.
But she was firm in dismissing the notion that the compact is a “vast conspiracy” to expand the District’s already significant charter-school sector.
“That expansion has already happened,” said Shorr, pointing out that one in four Philadelphia public schoolchildren already attends a charter.
“What we’re trying to figure out now is how do we manage all these different schools for better outcomes, not just for [continuing] an ideological war among the two sides.”
Pushed along by the Gates Foundation
Last November, the SRC joined the city, state, District, and two of Pennsylvania’s largest charter umbrella organizations in signing on to the Philadelphia Great Schools Compact. In December, the group was awarded a $100,000 planning grant by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. They are now preparing to compete with 13 other cities for millions more in implementation funds.
The crux of the compact, said Shorr, is replacing or transforming 50,000 seats in low-performing schools with better options, without regard to whether the schools involved are operated by the District or a charter organization.
“We’re trying to get to good schools vs. bad schools instead of charter schools vs. District schools,” said Shorr. “We’re trying to get people focused on what is showing good outcomes for kids and how do we expand on that.”
The current version of the compact spells out several clear strategies for growing high-performing charter options:
- Issuing new charters.
- Expanding the enrollment of existing charters.
- Continuing conversion of traditional public schools to charters via the Renaissance Schools Initiative.
But parent Gerald Wright of Parents United for Public Education is among those who are worried that the compact holds no similar vision or plan for replicating successful District-managed schools.
Wright pointed to the District’s recommendation to close, rather than expand, a successful neighborhood public school like E.M. Stanton as cause for skepticism about the compact’s real intent.
“How do you close a school that’s doing well in an environment where we’re saying we don’t have enough good schools?” Wright asked.
Shorr acknowledged that conversations within the compact group about expanding high-performing District schools are “early.”
“The District started their work around closing their lowest-performing schools,” she said. “The first two or three years of their effort has been there, and now they’re starting to look at the other end of the spectrum.”
But the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ Jordan isn’t buying it.
“They haven’t been closing down charters that are underperforming, and there’s nothing that leads me to believe they’re going to start now,” he said.
Next month, Jordan will see if his prediction is correct. The SRC is expected to vote on more than two dozen charter renewals, and sources have told the Notebook/NewsWorks that District staff are recommending that a few be denied.
Shorr said she has yet to see any such recommendations, but acknowledged the significance of the decisions the SRC will have to make.
“If any low-performing charters come up for renewal, that will be an important vote,” she said.
A central tenet of the compact, she stressed, is that “something happens” to any school that chronically underperforms. One option, she suggested, could be to turn low-performing charters over to new operators rather than close them.
‘No voice for the District’
Inside District headquarters, meanwhile, there is growing skepticism as to whether the District will benefit from the compact.
“There’s a real fear that our interests aren’t really being looked out for as a District,” said one well-placed District source who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal.
On paper, the compact committee currently consists of four District and four charter representatives:
- SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos
- SRC Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky
- Special Assistant Leroy Nunery
- Deputy for Strategic Initiatives Thomas Darden (non-voting)
- Lawrence Jones, CEO of Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School
- Naomi Booker, president of Global Leadership Academy
- David Rossi, president of Nueva Esperanza Academy
- Scott Gordon, CEO of Mastery Charter Schools (non-voting)
In that group, Nunery, the former acting superintendent recently demoted to special advisor, has an extensive background in the charter school sector. Darden’s chief responsibility is overseeing the District’s efforts to convert traditional public schools to charters as part of the Renaissance Schools Initiative.
“We don’t have the right people there,” said the District source. “There is no real voice now for the District.”
Some outside advocates, like Wright of Parents United, agree.
“People who have an interest in seeing the District divest itself of schools appear to be in the majority” on the compact committee, said Wright.
Shorr strongly disputed the notion that charter interests are overrepresented on the compact committee, pointing out the balance in the group’s numbers. She also added that new Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon, who began attending compact committee meetings about a week ago, will soon join the group formally.
It is unclear, however, if Nixon will be a voting member.
And for some, Nixon isn’t enough.
The Cross City Campaign for School Reform has been lobbying for almost a month to get parent and community representation on the compact committee and its five working groups.
“They’re making huge decisions for our city and our schools, but there’s not community representation,” said TaiMarie Adams, education policy co-director for Public Citizens for Children and Youth.
Adams said the public perception that the compact committee is “charter-heavy” has been exacerbated by the fact that it and its working groups have been meeting strictly behind closed doors, with only limited “updates” made public afterwards.
“Every major player in the city is part of this compact…and we believe it is creating policy,” said Adams. “But because the meetings are private, nobody knows what’s going on.”
Shorr said she recently met with Cross City representatives. She signaled that a change could be coming.
“I think we do need a broader array of people on these [working groups],”she said.
‘Don’t let us make a mistake.’
In the meantime, said Shorr, Monday’s SRC meeting will present a prime opportunity for public input on not just the compact, but on how it connects to the other major shifts now taking place in the District as the result of budget cuts, the facilities master planning process, and the organizational restructuring currently underway inside 440.
“There’s a lot of big new ideas that have come out in the last two months,” said Shorr. “I know that this is a big switch for people.”
The changes, she said, all boil down to the need for the District to downsize its infrastructure in order to better align its operations with its declining student population.
While she understands the anxiety being generated, Shorr said nothing is done yet, and the SRC’s desire for input is genuine.
“Getting insight from those [inside schools] is helpful for what can inform policy,” said Shorr. “Help us think about this, tell us what we are missing, and don’t let us make a mistake.”