Philadelphia should fear a charter takeover of York City schools
By Ron Whitehorne on Dec 22, 2014 02:05 PM
In spite of opposition from York City’s elected school board, York's school district is on the verge of being turned over lock, stock, and barrel to a for-profit charter operator with ties to Florida Republicans Gov. Rick Scott and former Gov. Jeb Bush.
The York City School District has been under state control since 2012, when Gov. Corbett's administration put the district in receivership, appointing David Meckley, a local businessman, as chief recovery officer. Meckley has pressed an austerity program, which includes cutbacks to school budgets, teacher layoffs, and union concessions.
York's school board drew the line at his proposal to privatize the entire district. The board tabled this measure, citing a lack of evidence that the proposed charter operator, Charter Schools U.S.A., would do better than the existing administration. The Pennsylvania Department of Education has gone to court to compel the local school board to implement the charter takeover. A decision is expected this week.
York, like other poor school districts around the state, has suffered from cuts in state funding amounting to $8.5 million, or 15 percent of the district’s budget, since Corbett took office, according to the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state branch of the National Education Association, the country's largest labor union.
None of the District’s eight schools made the state’s threshold for successful performance, something many find unsurprising given the budget crisis.
“The school district is right about where you’d expect it to be when you have an urban school district serving an impoverished population that’s already been decimated by Corbett’s budget cuts," said Wythe Keever, PSEA's assistant communications director, to Al Jazeera America. "Corbett starved the schools and then blamed the school district.”
Corbett, whose re-election bid was heavily funded by charter school interests, leaves office next month, but seems determined to give the charter operators a parting Christmas gift in the form of a contract to run York schools for five to 15 years, something that legal experts think the Wolf administration would be unable to undo.
Wolf has publicly opposed the plan and believes the authority of the local board should be respected.
Charter Schools U.S.A.
Charter Schools U.S.A. is a large, for-profit charter school management organization. Most of its schools are in Florida, but it also operates schools in a half-dozen other states. Chief executive Jonathan Hage previously worked as research director for Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future and served on Gov. Scott’s education transition team. Hage, who has no schools-based background in education, described in 2002 his decision to jump into the charter business to the St. Petersburg Times as "a classic business opportunity" with "lots of demand and very little supply."
Like many for-profit operators, the company skirts laws that require charters to be nonprofit by getting charters to contract out management to them. The modus operandi of the corporate charters in Florida, according to an investigation by the St. Petersburg Times, involves creating nonprofit charters that contract out all services to a for-profit operator. The investigation found little evidence to support Hage’s claim of community support for these charters.
What is happening in York demonstrates that for much of the charter school movement and its political supporters, the goal is corporatizing education. Instead of a public education system that is democratically controlled with the obligation to provide a "thorough and efficient" education as required by the state’s constitution, we have education run for profit by business people with minimal accountability to the public.
Philadelphia at a crossroads
With the floodgates for charter expansion opening in Philadelphia, and the School District facing yet another deficit, we should fear that what is happening in York could happen here in one form or another.
The charter school industry is evolving with the likelihood that the small mom-and-pop operators will be marginalized and a large market share of charter schools going to the emerging national and regional companies like KIPP, Mastery, and ASPIRA. Anthony Hardy Williams, the odds-on favorite in the mayor's race, at least among announced candidates, is a strong charter supporter.
Only a powerful mobilization by the communities that are dependent on public education, along with unions, who face continuing attrition as the charter sector grows, can hope to close down the floodgates.
The Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools is calling for a moratorium on charter school expansion, citing the pervasiveness of fraud and the absence of serious regulation. Clearly there are other reasons to oppose charter expansion, including the draining of resources from traditional public schools and the lack of equity in the two-tiered education system that the charter law has created.
Public schools need to be transformed. Sustainable community schools that empower parents and community allies, respect their unionized workforce, provide wrap-around services, positive behavior supports, and an engaging curriculum are an alternative to both charters and the resource-starved, bureaucratic District schools we now have. As we fight charter expansion we need to simultaneously lift up this alternative and fight for the funding to make it real.
Ron Whitehorne is a retired teacher and a coordinator for the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS).
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.