Charter and district schools should not be at odds; my family relies on both

     (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-216111634/stock-photo-tired.html'>Head on desk</a> image courtesy of Shutterstock.com)

    (Head on desk image courtesy of Shutterstock.com)

    District-run schools and charter schools are all institutions for the public school students of Philadelphia, and their rights are being violated if they are not being offered adequate educational opportunities. We should all be striving for more than “adequate” for these hundreds of thousands of young Philadelphians. Families should be able to choose the best public education opportunity and not be limited to a single troubled system.

    My education is, in part, a product of the best intentions of the School District of Philadelphia. In the early ’90s, the elementary school I attended in my neighborhood, James Russell Lowell in Olney, could no longer accommodate students up to eighth grade, so at the age of 11, I began evaluations to attend a school outside of my neighborhood, something most Philadelphia public school students know about.

    Of the hundreds of children having to transfer from Lowell that year, I think there were three or four of us chosen — all white — to attend Masterman magnet school in the Spring Garden neighborhood. Some of them I had never seen in Olney before. Some were from families who had come to live there to practice their religious convictions, my first experience with a kind of urban missionary. Others came from families that could afford to send their children to private schools.

    For me, magnet schools were my only viable options for an adequate education in Philadelphia, but there were things I was not prepared for. Instantly I was contending with people who were already receiving a superior education. Suddenly there were science labs. Suddenly there were school trips to exotic locations that I could never dream of affording. Gone was the eclectic cultural mix of Lowell, a school that had refugees from Vietnam, Thailand, Ukraine, Russia, Germany and Ireland, where we all learned new languages every day to communicate with one another, where there was a community.

    At Masterman, other kids ridiculed my large gold earrings with my name inside them. For the first time, I was accused of wanting to be something other than myself, and I remember crying in the bathroom at school for the first two weeks, begging my parents to let me go to Fels with my friends.

    No one understood me at school, and the longer I remained in a magnet school, the more I felt alienated from the people in my neighborhood. It was like living in many separate worlds that could be traveled on one subway line. Unfortunately, this continues all over Philadelphia — students thrust into extreme competition, with the most in need making the greatest sacrifices just to have an adequate education. While I feel lucky, luck should have very little to do with it.

    One size doesn’t fit all

    I graduated from Central High School in 1996, a year before the first charter schools opened in the city. Because of my own experience, even after I had my first child in 2002, I was skeptical of charter schools. My father was, and still is, a Philadelphia Public School teacher and an advocate within the union.

    So when my sons started school, their father and I did our research and sent them to public schools. We are very active in their education. Yet, when my older son started school, something was wrong.

    He always loved learning and had no problems leaving home for pre-school and kindergarten. But, as time progressed at his local public school, he dreaded each day. At the onset of first grade, after meeting his teacher — who told me my son needed to “toughen up” — I looked for an alternative for him.

    Since second grade, he has attended a charter school, where he gets the education he deserves and needs. My younger son attends the grade school my oldest son started at, and that is where he is getting the education he deserves and needs. This is because politics play no role in the education of my children. They require the best that I can provide for them. Participation in their education is an important part of my role as a parent.

    Because I keep up on local educational issues, I was intrigued by the recently released “Fraud and Financial Mismanagement in Pennsylvania’s Charter Schools.” The report was co-authored by The Center for Popular Democracy, Integrity in Education, and Action United — all organizations with a political agenda of sustaining funding for traditional district-run schools and teachers unions. That is significant, because if a bevy of charter school advocacy groups created a report on the issues of the traditional public school system and asked for restricted enrollment and funding, I would be skeptical of that as well.

    To be clear, my understanding of education law is that every child has the right to an adequate education. I believe that it is imperative to humanity to provide that education. However, I do not believe in defaming an entire education system over the mistakes of a few degenerate individuals. All of the fraud documented in the report had been previously detected and was attributed to specific individuals, not overall systemic misuse of funds. Most of the cases have been prosecuted; some are still in court.

    The report concludes, and there is no dispute, that the charter school system as a whole in Pennsylvania has been defrauded of $30 million since the system began in 1997. There is no comparison to spending at district-run public schools or “mismanagement” issues there. Immediately I thought of Arlene Ackerman, who walked away with about $1 million from the Philadelphia School District in 2011.

    Charter schools are public schools with less bureaucracy

    In Philadelphia, there are 214 functioning K-12 district-run schools servicing about 131,000 students. The charter school system has 86 functioning K-12 schools, and services a little over 60,000 students. There are many debates about Philadelphia education dollars “following a child” to the institution of their choice. While the charter system accounts for a third of the total Philadelphia public school population, Moody’s estimates that they receive almost a quarter of the district’s general fund.

    Charter schools are public schools. Every charter must legally present their plan to their local school district. For public schools to become charter schools, over half of the student body and faculty must vote on it. One aspect of my older son’s charter school that I really enjoy is having an education system without huge bureaucracies. Each charter school is required to have a board of trustees that oversees the institution. At my older son’s school, I know the administration. It’s easy to talk to those charged with making decisions for the school. I feel like my voice is heard. I know his teacher, and the aides, and the local administration.

    However, for questions at my younger son’s school — like whether there is a nurse in the school, or which teachers will be hired or fired — there is a whole system to traverse before reaching the city- and state-appointed School Reform Commission, which ultimately makes those decisions. I will probably never talk to anyone on the SRC, which tremendously removes parents from education.

    The report on charter school financial management calls for greater transparency, and no one in their right mind should have a problem with that. My problem with the report is that it seems to advocate for the SRC to be more actively involved in the daily operations of charter schools. It must also be acknowledged that, because all charters are granted through local school districts, the local school systems are partly culpable in the charter fraud. The organizations that released the report seem to want to impose a failing district system on a charter system that’s at least trying to create some variety in Philadelphia’s very high-pressure educational scheme.

    There is a case currently before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court about how much influence the SRC can have over the operation of charter schools, after they have tried to put limits on how many students each charter school can educate. When the SRC asks to limit enrollment at a facility that’s willing and able to offer an education that students and families are asking for, it seems like an effort against reform. More scrutiny can be a good thing — but please not from the SRC, and absolutely not from an administration that costs more than the teaching staff. Philadelphia schools needs to go far beyond providing limited magnet schools or neighborhood private schools as the only education choices outside of district-run schools.

    Traditional schools and charter schools should not be at odds, at least not to the extent of public-school advocates marching in protest. We cannot rely on the government as a system to solve our individual problems; we must solve those problems ourselves. We must create solutions if they do not already exist.

    District-run schools and charter schools are all institutions for the public school students of Philadelphia, and their rights are being violated if they are not being offered adequate educational opportunities. We should all be striving for more than “adequate” for these hundreds of thousands of young Philadelphians. Families should be able to choose the best public education opportunity and not be limited to a single troubled system.

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