Time to end the charter-District divide and build a united front
By James H. Lytle on Apr 21, 2015 02:44 PM
It’s time to end the charter vs. District school schism in Philadelphia. The horse is out of the barn. The deal is done. Get over it.
If Philadelphia’s public schools are going to get adequate funding, there needs to be a “united front” of charter and District leadership marching arm in arm to City Hall and Harrisburg. Supporting one or the other should not be a litmus test for mayoral or City Council candidates. Division won’t bring victory in Harrisburg.
District leaders need to join charter sector leaders and others to plan solutions to Philadelphia’s longstanding public education challenges. School Reform Commissioners Marjorie Neff and Bill Green, along with Superintendent William Hite and PFT president Jerry Jordan, should join with charter leaders such as Mastery’s Scott Gordon, Boys' Latin’s David Hardy, KIPP’s Marc Mannella, and with PSP’s Mark Gleason to form a factionless group formed for this purpose.
If this requires locking the group in a room until they emerge with a common agenda, then so be it. As a group, they have a great deal of credibility locally, statewide, and even nationally. They need to capitalize on their collective strength.
The group should keep in mind that most parents and the greater public don’t care about the ideological warfare between charter and traditional school advocates. What they do care about, as shown in a recent Pew study, is the quality of public schooling in Philadelphia. They care about the city’s future and they understand that the availability of attractive public schools and a well-educated workforce are essential to the city’s well-being.
There are, of course, sticky issues to resolve: the impact of charter school reimbursements and growing charter enrollments on the District’s budget, how to increase charter access for English language learning and special education students, and revising the special education funding formula for charters.
These are the kinds of issues the group needs to reach agreement on. Otherwise, City Council and the state legislature can hide behind divisiveness.
On the debate about whether charter schools or traditional schools are more effective – at this point, the research is conclusive. On the whole, neither outperforms the other.
What charters do provide is an opportunity for parental agency, a way to make a choice in their child's education. Charters have generally been more conventional and less experimental than their early supporters had hoped, but they have been sites for experimentation in pedagogy, organization, school time, staffing, compensation, and other basic features of schooling. Their success in recruiting students has forced traditional schools to adapt, as is evident in Philadelphia, where support for autonomy and innovation in traditional schools has increased.
Like charters, District schools are not a monolith. District schools encompass a wide range of organizations and services, and there are many things charter operators, leaders, and faculties could learn from an association with them. Examples include providing for students with special needs, whether gifted, disabled, or English language learners; integrating technology into the core curriculum; providing quality vocational and career preparation programs; dealing with diversity; doing more with less; and ensuring the employment rights of administrators, teachers, and support staff.
In Philadelphia, school leaders — principals, teachers, students, and parents — need to appreciate the advantages of collaborating across the divide for both political and programmatic reasons. Both sides have much to teach and learn from each other. And they share a common purpose – educating a substantial majority of the city’s children. That is where our energy needs to be focused.
James H. Lytle is Practice Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, a former District administrator, and a former superintendent in Trenton.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.