The Comeback of Charters

Jan. 26, 2016 – The Philadelphia Citizen – by Roxanne Patel Shepelavy

Twenty years in, good charter schools are self-policing and calling for the closing of bad ones. Is it enough to get the movement’s mojo back?

The thing about the soap opera at last week’s School Reform Commission meeting—at which the commissioners made an 11th-hour decision to turn Wister Elementary into a Renaissance school run by Mastery Charters—is that underneath it all, it was a dramatic retelling of the same old story.

On the one side were desperate parents and pro-charter supporters who believe Mastery can turn around the school quicker and better than the District—something they say the charter organization has proven time and again. On the other side were a different set of parents and charter opponents who believe what Wister needs is more and better support from the District to continue the modest performance gains it made last year—not giving it over to a charter.

Commissioner Sylvia Simms, after speaking with pro-Mastery parents, proposed a resolution overturning Superintendent William Hite’s decision to keep Wister a traditional public school. She spoke movingly of parents like her: From low-income neighborhoods, where schools have long struggled to provide a good education, whose children make up the thousands on charter waiting lists. Three commissioners supported her. And immediately, the decision was slammed by public school advocates like new Councilwoman-at-large Helen Gym, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan, and Mayor Jim Kenney.

So much shouting into the wind, so little change in the conversation. It’s no wonder so many of us feel like nothing is ever going to change.

Or is it? This year could mark a new era for charter schools in Philadelphia. For the first time publicly, high-performing charters have started to acknowledge what critics of the whole movement have been saying for years: that many charter schools do a worse job of educating students than traditional public schools; that they should not be allowed to continue; and that the city and state have made it too hard to shut down a school, even when it has had poor results for years.

In September, the group of about 50 charters calling itself Philadelphia Charters for Excellence (PCE), along with the advocacy arm of charter-friendly Philadelphia School Partnership, issued a position paper that called for the closing of poor-performing charter schools.

“When charter schools are effective, they should be encouraged to grow,” the paper, “Better Isn’t Good Enough,” says. “But when they are ineffective, they should be closed or transformed, especially since the priority is to give as many students as possible access to high quality schools.”

It was the first stroke in what will be a line in the sand starting this year: On one side will be charters that serve Philly students well, as judged by a particular set of standards; on the other, will be those that don’t. It’s a distinction that could allow charters to take back a piece of the school reform narrative that has turned away from them in the last few years. And, if all goes as planned, it could benefit the school system as a whole.

“For the good of the charter movement, for the good of schools, for the good of the District, we will be setting clear standards about what is success,” says Amy Ruck Kagan, who was hired by PCE’s board in June to transform the organization. “There is support in Philadelphia to change the charter movement here, to finally say, it’s not about growing for growth’s sake, but to be a part of the conversation about the future of schools.”

Kagan, formerly head of New Jersey’s charter school office, started in the middle of what was, by many accounts, a tough year for the perception and politics around charters. (“I never thought anything could be more politicized than New Jersey,” Kagan says. “This is, or at least as much.”) In February, the SRC approved only five of 39 applications for new schools—a number on par with the national trend but still a disappointment to many advocates. (Another school was added later.) Still, even that concession led (then new) Gov. Tom Wolf to replace SRC Chairman Bill Green with Marjorie Neff, the only commissioner who voted against any new charters at all.

A few months later, decidedly pro-charter Anthony Williams was decidedly defeated in the city’s Mayoral primary, for an election which several months later saw public school advocate Helen Gym garner the most votes for her new Council-at-large seat. Even Hillary Clinton got in on the act nationally, chiding charters for not accepting or keeping enough hard-to-teach students.

This year started with Gov. Wolf sending money to school districts that charters contend was owed to them—and with an ongoing debate over a provision to the state school code that would weaken the District’s authority over charters. Where it will end is still not known.

“This is a less welcoming environment for charters in the state than we’ve seen in a long time,” says Kagan. “Everything politically is pointing to the need to make a change. It’s vital that we do this now.”

This month, Kagan unveiled a three-tiered membership system that demands PCE members perform to certain standards in academics, governance, finances and admissions/enrollment policies. (Citizen chairman and columnist Jeremy Nowak was a consultant to PCE in developing the standards.) Each tier comes with academic expectations—from a School Performance Profile index of 50 for Tier 1 to an SPP of 75 for Tier 3—and increasingly stringent requirements for financial solvency and board transparency.

All members will also be required to take an “equity pledge,” promising to maintain and take students off a waiting list, and have a one page admissions application, in multiple languages, with someone available to walk parents through it—as close as possible to the ease of registering for a neighborhood school. To check, Kagan says PCE will initiate a “mystery shopper” program, posing as parents to randomly call charters to confirm their admissions policies—something charter authorizers in other cities have started to do.

For those that qualify, PCE membership will mean the school has passed a series of tests, set up by charters for charters, to achieve something like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. The tiers will give parents and school officials a way to compare charters that has been lacking so far. And Kagan says PCE plans to convene disparate PCE members for more directed professional development, discussion of best practices and collaboration.

As a group, PCE membership may give charters more leverage to advocate locally and statewide, especially since PCE and school reform group PennCAN are also working with Pittsburgh schools to sign on to a similar program. Eventually, Kagan hopes a PCE score will signal to the School District, the SRC, the state and parents which schools should be allowed to grow—and which should be made to close.

“We’re battling in Harrisburg, and locally, and the argument keeps coming back to: But so many charters are doing badly,” Kagan says. “We’re changing the conversation by asking you to stand behind the ones that offer access to all, are academically strong, and are ready and poised to take on new kids.”

The move is the boldest acknowledgement on the part of charters that the tides have shifted nearly two decades after the movement started. Which begs the question: What took them so long? For the first several years, the charter school movement meant innovation—it was educators opening schools, hoping to find a way out of the morass of public education that had long been failing many students. The District allowed for rapid charter growth before anyone could gauge success or failure. By then, the state charter law had made it expensive and cumbersome to shut down a school, and had allowed them to grow their populations. Some 28 percent of Philly students now attend a charter school.

In the last few years, what had started as an alternative for every Philadelphian became a symbol in the class struggle epitomized by Occupy Wall Street. Suddenly, charters were stand-ins for the haves taking from the have nots—never mind that most Philadelphia charter school students are still among the poorest kids in the country—a perception not helped by, well, charters. Like this gem from 2013: A closed-door meeting of private donors who give $50,000 in charitable donations yearly, meeting at The Union League, to discuss the future of public education. (Full disclosure: Citizen chairman and columnist Nowak was among the program’s speakers.) Are Bill Gates and Michael Dell, whose nonprofit foundations attended the event, getting rich off of charter schools? Doubtful. But the event fed the notion that charter schools were for and about something distasteful to regular folks.

Meanwhile, as middle class families have expanded beyond Center City, they have embraced their local public schools, a civic-minded pursuit that has also become an anti-charter movement. With the political winds shifting, the charter school sector often acted like a monolith, loathe to point fingers at each other, even when it became clear that some charters have unfairly culled their population, or failed to educate their students, or operated in a way that is not transparent or above board. They lobbied the state—successfully—to make Philly consider opening more charter schools, even while the city struggled to close those that were not successful.

Add into the political stew the fact that budget woes over the last several years have led traditional public schools to close, consolidate, cut staff and grow their class sizes. An already fractious debate over charters has now become one about survival, on both sides.

“Scarcity makes people dig in their heels and protect their territory more than before,” says David Lapp, a lawyer at Education Law Center, who is a critic of many charter school policies. “It’s inevitable that as we got to this percentage of students in charters, people would start looking at what this sector is doing, and whether or not it’s a good thing to have it expanding.”

It’s a delicate moment for PCE and Kagan: Hired by PCE’s board, made up of charter school officials, she is now telling those officials what they must do to remain in PCE. As she has unveiled her group’s plans, she says her standing members have reacted in three ways: Confusion over what it means; disagreement over the academic standards, particularly using the state’s assessment system, which relies heavily on standardized tests; and a worry that the bar for inclusion is still not high enough.

Kagan says schools have until September to align themselves with PCE standards. Academics alone will mean some current members—like some Universal charter schools—will not make the cut. (Because of changes to state assessments last school year, the education department last issued SPP scores in the 2013-2014 school year; those are the figures PCE will look at.)
For other pieces of the membership process, Kagan says PCE plans a series of group trainings, as well as individual sessions, to help schools that need a little extra guidance. “We want to help them get there,” Kagan says. “Still, we’re not winning a lot of friends in our own movement, necessarily.”

But she has no other choice if she wants to win over an even more difficult contingent: those outside the organization. Lapp says the success of PCE’s new initiative will depend on many factors: How transparent it is with its standards, what they consider “success” in academics, and how far they plan to go to ensure low performing schools are actually closed. Kagan, who has conferred with both friends and foes of charters, says PCE has and will lobby for legislation to ease the shuttering of schools.

That remains to be seen, but even charter critic Lapp concedes that there’s cause for some hope. “I think it’s awesome that PCE is owning its name and defining excellence in a different way,” he says.