In a tough spot, the SRC got it right
By Christine Carlson on Feb 23, 2015 01:44 PM
A child asks for a puppy. Presented with a hole-punched gift box, he opens it with excitement, only to find a venomous snake.
So it was with the cigarette tax. As public school advocates, we pleaded for the revenue that the cigarette tax would provide. Although we got the funding we asked for, it was delivered with a life-threatening twist. The bill’s last-minute addition, which reopened the District to new charter school applications and allowed an appeal process for those rejected, threatens the existence of the District schools we sought to help. Each new charter seat added drains even further the resources needed to keep District schools afloat.
The School Reform Commission’s primary responsibilities are maintaining the financial stability of the District and supervising the superintendent. For many years, the SRC acted responsibly by not authorizing any new standalone charter schools. And it acted responsibly again last week, when it approved five of the 39 charter school applications that it was required to review.
Every new charter seat comes at the expense of District schools. The District continues to pay thousands in stranded costs for each student who enrolls at a charter school. Without an equitable way of cutting those fixed costs from its budget, a significant expansion of charter seats would wreak havoc on neighborhoods. Already-meager school budgets would be reduced even further. Good District schools would begin to deteriorate, and, worse, students in struggling schools would face even worse odds of receiving a basic education. Eventually, more neighborhood schools would be closed.
Before the SRC voted on the proposals, our elected officials placed the commissioners in an inexcusable situation. Our new governor warned not to authorize any charters. Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai came to Philadelphia and demanded charter expansion, or else. Other Republican lawmakers hinted that if the SRC approved the charters, then maybe they would work on pension reform. And all the while, our so-called Philadelphia delegation, who should have been offering some kind of support, stood mutely by.
Turzai said he was “very disappointed” that the SRC only approved five new charters and said the move makes it tougher to have discussions about reinstating state reimbursements to districts for charter school expenditures. Gov. Wolf called the five approvals irresponsible. And our Philadelphia delegation remains silent.
By conditionally approving five applications by proven charter operators in areas where the District has indicated that options are most needed and pledging to close more underperforming charter schools, the SRC carried out the spirit of the charter law with minimum financial strain on the District.
If our legislators are truly interested in expanding charter schools in Philadelphia, they must fund District and charter schools without benefiting one to the detriment of the other. Reinstituting charter school reimbursements would be a good first step.
With the cigarette bill, we got a snake instead of a puppy. It may have nipped us, but the SRC prevented it from going for the jugular. We can only hope that the state's Charter Appeal Board keeps the lid on the box.
This piece was adapted from testimony the author gave at the School Reform Commission meeting on Feb. 18.
Christine Carlson is a public school parent and the founder of the Greater Center City Neighborhood Schools Coalition.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.