This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
For more than a decade, Larry Jones has been a prominent supporter of Philadelphia’s charter schools, particularly the smaller, community-based variety that proliferated in the wake of the 2001 state takeover.
He has run the 350-student Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School since it opened in 2001; since 2006, he has also served as president of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.
Jones’ advocacy frequently highlights the distinctions between the interests of small schools like his and those of the larger providers now running networks of schools. We asked him to reflect on the potential impact of the current budget proposals on the kinds of schools he represents and the ways that charter supporters could collaborate with traditional public school advocates to advance their mutual interest in adequate, sustained funding for schools of all kinds.
What did this year’s budget debate look like from where you sat?
It was frenetic. Look at the cigarette tax – one day they’re saying, "No way in hell." A day later it’s a done deal. Then there’s a celebration. Then it might not happen. That was multiplied over various issues.
How would the proposed budget affect the charters you represent?
The biggest thing that’s going to specifically impact charter schools is the fact that the PSERS [Public School Employees’ Retirement System] reimbursement was eliminated. For my school, that’s a $300,000 loss out of a $5 million budget, and it could be higher next year.
It’s a game-changer, and of course it’ll affect different-sized schools differently. I’m a relatively small school, so it’s going to be a hit on services and personnel. A school with a larger budget is going to be able to absorb a cut.
Is the charter voice being heard in Harrisburg? I heard a lot of public advocacy from supporters of traditional public education, but not so much from charters. Was I missing something?
There was a strong presence – but the other issue was the special education funding. That, in various forms, had the potential to be crippling – especially coupled with PSERS.
I understand some will say, "You guys are losing a double dip." But I think everybody agrees that the charter school funding methodology that’s in place is flawed. For example, the lack of true facilities funding is a flaw for charter schools.
Sounds like you agree that there are some charter school expenditures that could be bumped down – but you also think that others should be bumped up.
Yes. We’re hoping that the debate over basic education funding [this fall] will be a place to have an open and honest dialogue about that.
Looking down the road, do you see a path away from these kinds of contentious, politicized budget debates? Is there a route to something more stable?
The first thing we need is a weighted formula that considers things like at-risk students, English-language learners, high-poverty students.
And it needs to be fair. There may be some districts that are going to take a haircut. Not to disrespect anybody, because sports are very important, but some districts have weight rooms that rival Division I colleges and pro teams. If you can afford that, are you really in the same conversation as schools that can’t afford adequate buildings and textbooks or teachers’ supplies?
Taking funding away from prosperous districts may be the highest political mountain there is to climb.
I’d agree. I don’t want to rob Peter to pay Paul, even if Peter has more money than Kanye West. That’s not necessarily what we’re saying.
But if we are going to significantly increase funding for certain groups of students and certain populations, we can leave funding flat in [more prosperous districts] and they can find other ways to maintain programming that they have.
With a gubernatorial election scheduled for November, September will bring plenty of politics. What are your plans for influencing that conversation?
I think this past budget session has shown both candidates that they have to show how they’re going to climb this mountain.
I’m not hearing an awful lot [from the candidates] about addressing charters specifically. To some extent, that’s good. Let’s first talk about how we’re going to divide the pie for every child. I believe that if at all possible we should look towards a student-based funding system.
In the charter community, if you can get to that level of funding, you have a secondary benefit. One of the longstanding criticisms of some charter schools is that certain students are excluded, maybe because they cost too much to serve.
If students are showing up and saying, "I’m coming to you with some challenges, but those challenges are being funded, so you’ll have the resources to help me," I think that would have a small but measurable impact.
You’ve told me that you’ll be part of the local coalition that’s talking about a funding formula. There’s also a legislative commission on funding. How can advocates for charter and traditional schools work together to move the needle on this bigger funding question?
What we’ve got to be able to do is prioritize. We can say, "We’re not going to talk about what charter schools should get for facilities or special education while we’re having the conversation on how much should be spent overall."
If you give charters extra facilities funding, but at the end of the day there’s still not enough going to districts and charters period, it doesn’t matter.
There may need to be an agreement among the advocates, among the camps, that if we see a smaller piece of legislation dealing with rural schools only, or charter schools only, as a coalition we’d say, "put the brakes on that – nobody’s getting anything done until we fix the elephant.”
What’s the impact of that kind of united front in Harrisburg?
It makes it that much harder for them to say no. You take away their "out" – you take away the ability to say, "I’d love to support this, but a number of my constituents are charter schools, and this will hurt them." Or vice versa.
Talk to me a little about the long-range vision – what could help us get to a more stable place five, 10 years down the road?
For charters, I think a continued focus on the role of the authorizer. We often think that the authorizer is just the gotcha person [i.e. the accountability enforcer]. The authorizer should also be an advocate for funding and other issues and make sure that school has the resources available to achieve.
What about enrollment caps? Should charters be allowed to grow at will, or should districts be able to set limits?
How we expand equitably is a question. When you double, triple, quadruple a school’s enrollment, is that always going to be prudent? Large expansions can be detrimental to everyone.
When I first started in this in 2001, the question would always be "what’s your charter school about? Who do you serve?" Now, it’s become "how many kids do you have?" This is an education model, not necessarily a business model.
Any other big-picture thoughts for how to stabilize the overall situation?
I think we need to look at how we fund public education, not just how we fund districts and charters. A different system may need to be in place five or 10 years down the road. There are 500 districts in Pennsylvania. Do we need 500 districts? Can we organize in a different way?
These kinds of changes all require broad, bipartisan support, and that can be hard to come by. What makes you think it can happen now?
As Marcus Garvey said, if leaders can’t organize the people, eventually conditions will. And I think we’re at that point where rural schools and certain districts are looking around and saying, "We’re not insulated from any of this."
So I’m optimistic. Whether it’s pensions or funding, so many things have been pushed off or Band-Aided for so long, we’re at a tipping point. We can either change now in a thoughtful way, or be forced to change at the drop of a dime.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity.