At Philly panel discussion, fiery calls to rally black support for charter growth

Pennsylvania Rep. Jordan Harris (left) says that, under the new law, if people with sealed records are asked about prior convictions, it will be as if the crime never happened. (WHYY file)

Pennsylvania Rep. Jordan Harris (left) says that, under the new law, if people with sealed records are asked about prior convictions, it will be as if the crime never happened. (WHYY file)

Pennsylvania state Reps. Jordan Harris and Joanna McClinton urged the black community to rally for expanded school choice and charter-friendly policies at a Center City forum Thursday evening.

Hosted by Educational Opportunities for Families, a charter advocacy group, the panel was billed as a discussion on race and equity in education. It comes as a charter-overhaul bill backed by EOF and other school-choice groups works its way through the state Legislature.

Harris and McClinton, Democrats who represent adjacent swaths of Southwest Philadelphia, hit on familiar themes for charter advocates — including the need for black families to have options outside traditional public schools in struggling neighborhoods.

“People have told me that I’ve been trying to dismantle public education,” said Harris. “No! I just know what it’s like to grow up in a neighborhood without options.”

Harris, who graduated from a speciality program associated with Bartram High School, said too many of his peers at the main high school wound up slain, in prison, or working menial jobs.

Growing in Southwest Philadelphia, McClinton said her mother would not let her attend the neighborhood public school, vowing instead to work as many jobs as possible to pay for a private education. During a recent visit to the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, McClinton said she asked inmates what went wrong in their education.

“Unequivocally, they all said, ‘Well, if I had gotten into ‘x’ charter school’ or ‘If I had been able to go here, if I had been able to go there, I would not have been as likely to be lured to the streets,'” McClinton said.

‘Anti-choice for other people’

Over decades now, many black Democrats — motivated by personal experience and constituent demands — have teamed with free-market conservatives to promote greater school choice. Some liberal Democrats point to the alliance as evidence that charters serve only to weaken the traditional public system and the unionized workers they employ.

Sharif El-Mekki, a co-panelist at the forum and principal of Mastery-Shoemaker Charter School, hit back at those critics Thursday. He argued that many of the progressive politicians who rail against charters support educational choice in the form of selective magnet schools.

“When we’re talking about people who don’t want choice, I put that in quotation marks,” El-Mekki said. “Because there’s not a single person who is really anti-choice. They’re anti-choice for other people.”

El-Mekki argued that it was hypocritical for politicians and public school advocates to stymie the growth of school choice while also opting their own children out of neighborhood schools.

“We got these people who want to position themselves as radicals in City Council. Oh yeah, ‘I’m fighting for the people and I’m this and I’m that,'” said El-Mekki. “But when you look at them every step of the way, they made choices for their children, but … when it comes to black families, they want to tell them to wait?”

Harris said too many of the city’s most desirable schools are disproportionately white and middle-to-upper-middle class.

“You want to talk about all of these great schools? That’s great,” Harris said. “How many young people that look like me can get into those schools?”

Uncertainty nationally, locally

El-Mekki, McClinton, and Harris spoke before an overwhelmingly supportive audience. But beyond the walls of Stradley Ronon, the law firm that hosted Thursday’s event, the school choice debate rages on.

New U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos brings strong pro-choice credentials to the nation’s highest education post. Locally, activists of all stripes continue to clash over how the city should oversee charters. Payments to charter schools represent a fast-growing portion of the School District of Philadelphia’s budget, pushing the district toward fiscal uncertainty. Care calls for reform sound from both sides.

In recent months, charter and district officials attempted to jointly draft proposed legislation to change Pennsylvania’s old and unpopular charter law. The talks dissipated, however, amid continued disagreement on key issues.

With those arguments lingering, advocacy groups are left to rally support for their respective causes.

Harris argued Thursday that it was imperative for black families to not simply advocate for their own children, but to join forces and support what he termed a “righteous movement.”

“That’s how we got into this situation we’re in today,” said Harris. “Because we had so many people who were OK with just their child being OK.”

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