This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Her neighborhood school was targeted for closing, and Dawn Hawkins was angry. As she confronted Philadelphia School District Superintendent William Hite at a community meeting, she was clear about one reason why.
“You’re saying the charter schools are better,” shouted Hawkins, a parent leader in the community organization Action United and the parent of a 7th grader at L.P. Hill School in Strawberry Mansion. “My son gets straight As and Bs at that school. The staff and teachers care about my son in that school. … Guess what. We can get some paint, we can get some computers, we can get some extra teachers…”
“I am not saying charter schools are better,” replied Hite, his trademark calm voice rising over the restless buzz of the auditorium at Dobbins High School. “Here’s what I am saying: that 60,000 parents are making the decision to send their children to [charter] schools.
“We are trying to make our schools better so that when people are making choices about schools, they’re choosing District schools. We must do that. But we cannot do that if we’re carrying 53,000 empty seats.”
Hawkins is not alone in her concerns about charter growth and its effect on the traditional neighborhood school.
Those concerns range from the flow of money and students out of the District to the charters’ success in tapping outside funds that the District has been unable to obtain.
In its December alternative to the District’s closing plan, the recently formed Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS) proposed stopping charter expansion and closing all charters that don’t show “superior” educational performance and an “innovative educational model.”
That’s not the path the School District is now on.
The District’s five-year financial plan provides for a $100 million increase in spending on charter schools in 2013-14 – and over five years, a $222 million, or 38 percent, increase in charter spending.
As the School Reform Commission was reauthorizing and expanding charters last spring, the District revealed that it anticipated adding 13,450 more charter seats over five years. The SRC approved about 5,400 new charter seats last year alone.
However, Hite himself keeps telling audiences he wants to stop the loss of District students to charters.
In a recent interview, he said that with some 30 percent of its students attending charters, the District is “at almost a natural saturation. … We have to rethink using charter seats that may not be adding value … and how we re-craft those charter seats into something different. We have to do better charter authorizing.”
Hite has also proposed that the District create a school for online learning to compete with the growing number of cyber charters.
A District spokesman declined to respond as to whether Hite would ask the SRC to take any other specific steps to slow charter growth. The SRC has acted to cap some charter enrollments but has closed down just two charters in the past decade; four more are in various stages of the closing process now.
Where charters drain students
The school Dawn Hawkins was defending, L. P. Hill, appears in some ways typical of the city’s struggling neighborhood schools, with declining enrollments and low test scores. It has met state standards for adequate yearly progress just once in the past nine years. But it is unusual in that just 10 percent of the students in its catchment area have enrolled in charter schools.
A review by the Notebook of District data indicated that at nearly half the District’s elementary schools – 78 out of 163 – at least 20 percent of neighborhood students are instead enrolling in a charter. That could mean either a stand-alone, conventional charter or a turnaround “Renaissance” school that serves a neighborhood catchment area but is run by charter operators.
Even more middle and high school students leave for charters.
According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, charter enrollment in Philadelphia is the fourth largest in the country, behind New Orleans, Los Angeles and New York. The city now has 84 charters.
But charters are hardly the only path out of the neighborhood schools.
Strawberry Mansion High School, also slated for closing, enrolls less than 20 percent of the high school students in its catchment area. Almost 40 percent are enrolled in charter schools. But an equal number have chosen different in-District options: other neighborhood schools, citywide admission, or special admission schools.
Lori Shorr, chief education officer for Mayor Nutter, said that the reasons for the flight to charters are clear. “The good charters have been very nimble, they’ve been innovative, and they’ve been mission-driven,” she said. “They’re not part of a larger bureaucracy. The best ones have been very good in creating a culture inside the school where they believe, ‘We own this school, along with the parents. We’re responsible for the outcomes.’"
“Plenty of [traditional] public schools have been able to do it, but it’s against the tide. That’s one of the reasons we’re talking about more autonomy, trying to create that culture of accountability.”
Shorr is not alarmed at predictions by the District that 40 percent of its students will be in charters in five years.
“I don’t think I see it as desirable or undesirable,” she said. “We need to think in terms of which schools are doing a good job with kids. If that’s in charters and that leads to 40 percent, that’s what it is.” She said that Philadelphia’s charters aren’t attracting just public school students: About one third of their students come from outside the District, mostly the Catholic system.
Others see a threat
Many educational observers are more skeptical. They see charters as unproven over the long haul, a drain on traditional neighborhood schools, and potentially a threat to public education itself.
“It’s diverted resources from traditional public schools,” said Craig Robbins, executive director of Action United, a member of the PCAPS coalition.
“They were originally conceived as laboratories for innovation, and no one’s opposed to that. But it shouldn’t be what it’s become.”
Robbins is particularly critical of the majority of charters that do not function as neighborhood schools. He said that no matter how these schools might try to recruit a diverse student body, the application process favors motivated families, leaving behind students who desperately need strengthened neighborhood schools. The coalition has also questioned whether many charters adequately serve special education and ELL students and students with disciplinary issues.
Another person who has growing concerns about charters is David Hornbeck, who was District superintendent from 1994 to 2000.
“I bought into the idea that they might be an arena in which new and different things could be tried,” he said. “The bloom came off the rose relatively quickly. It was evident fairly early on that if any of them showed exceptional merit in practice, it was the exception and not the rule.”
Hornbeck is more optimistic about charters that function as neighborhood schools and thus don’t have a complicated application process.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan is less concerned with that distinction, saying, “It’s not a level playing field in a lot of areas.” He cited the greater interest in charter schools by the business community and the Philadelphia School Partnership, which has raised more than $50 million in grants, mostly for charters.
Jordan recalled a visit to Mastery Charter School’s Shoemaker campus on a tour with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “They had totally changed the building.” Jordan said. “It was painted, it was bright. If the public schools had that money, they could do the same things.”
Still, the tension in the system is not as simple as charters vs. neighborhood schools.
Former administrator James M. “Torch” Lytle, now a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, noted that the move away from Philadelphia’s neighborhood schools predates the charter movement by decades. Federal desegregation money under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 helped create schools that would be attractive to mixed populations.
Lytle said that the charter school movement is accelerating this trend, with the business community heavily involved. He can envision a future in which charter schools are acquired and managed by large educational chains.
“I’m concerned that Philadelphia is being whacked into small pieces,” he said. “Philadelphia is seen in the venture capital world as a place to watch.”
Benjamin Herold also contributed to this story.
Photo: Lori Shorr, chief education officer for Mayor Nutter (Harvey Finkle)