Million-dollar ad buy pushes for Philly charter school expansion

“Why are the politicians stopping good schools from helping more of our kids?”

That’s the question asked by one parent in a new advertising campaign promoting the expansion of charter schools in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia School Advocacy Partners, an arm of the Philadelphia School Partnership, will spend more than $1 million on the ads.

The ads come in the midst of a city mayor’s race where candidates have traded jabs in the often toxic debate over the role of charter schools in Pennsylvania.

“We hope to impact the mayor’s race, but not in favor of any one candidate,” said Mike Wang, executive director of PSAP.

Of the candidates, state Sen. Tony Williams has most effectively championed the expansion of the charter sector.

Former state Sen. T. Milton Street has been the staunchest critic.

PSAP will not identify the donors paying for the airtime, though it says the donors are a subset of those listed on the Philadelphia School Partnership’s website.

A political action committee affiliated with the Philadelphia School Partnership, Excellent Schools PA, has donated to Williams’ campaign. That PAC is funded in large part by the Students First PAC, which is funded almost entirely by the three wealthy school-choice advocates who are actively supporting Williams’ mayoral bid.

That trio, who run the Bala Cynwyd-based Susquehanna International Group, donated $5 million to Williams failed gubernatorial campaign in 2010.

Although they are funding Williams’ bid this year through their American Cities PAC, they say they did not contribute to PSAP’s ad buy.

Playing politics?

PSAP’s first ad, posted in full above, reinforces the notion that many parents in Philadelphia do not have access to the schools where they wish to send their kids.

The commercial bypasses the nuance and complexity of the charter debate in Pennsylvania – making no mention of the fiscal impact of opening new charters, nor their mixed academic results and sometimes questionable enrollment practices.

Nor does it recognize the many parents actively investing in the revitalization of their neighborhood schools.

PSAP’s ad places blame upon politicians for curbing charter expansion.

“Stop playing politics while my son is being shut out,” says a parent.

While some politicians, chiefly Gov. Tom Wolf, have expressed concerns about the expansion of Philadelphia’s charter sector, most substantive political action of late has supported the sector.

Last September, state lawmakers passed a measure compelling Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission to review applications for new charter schools for the first time since since 2007. Citing fiscal instability, the SRC had previously put a moratorium on new charters.

This bipartisan bill led directly to the creation of five new charter schools in Philadelphia, and will likely result in more in the years to come.

Thirty-four charter hopefuls were denied in that process. The School Reform Commission members – most of whom have supported the charter sector – said they based denials on the merits of the applications.

Some charter leaders have disputed that notion, attributing the rejections to political pressure from Gov. Wolf.

District superintendent William Hite – who has also been a consistent proponent of high-performing charter schools – says the fiscal implications of rapid charter expansion will hinder the district’s ability to improve academic performance in its own schools.

‘No more waiting’

PSAP’s Wang doesn’t believe that concern should win the day.

“We absolutely have to solve the resource problem, solve the funding problem,” he said. “We cannot use that challenge as an excuse to keep families from high-quality schools when there are high-quality schools ready to meet the needs of those children.”

PSAP is actively lobbying state lawmakers for more education funding and the return of the state aid that helps districts defray the added costs of the charter sector.

Wang also helped frame the legislation soon to be introduced by state Sen. Lloyd Smucker that would allow the state to take over, and “charterize,” chronically underperforming schools.

PSAP’s ads, produced by the Campaign Group, began airing Monday on local broadcast and cable channels. PSAP says air time will decrease as the mayoral campaigns saturate the airwaves in the days leading up to the May 19 primary.

PSAP’s ad blitz will then resume, running through the state’s June 30 budget deadline.

Wang couldn’t yet say how many different ads would run.

Some ads also will appear on digital media. Wang cited banner ads on Pandora’s music app as an example.

“The end game is every child in Philadelphia having access to a great school,” he said.

Currently, 84 bricks-and-mortar charter schools in Philadelphia serve more than 60,000 children. The district’s 217 schools serve roughly 130,000 students. Wang says 25,000 parents are on charter wait lists, but those tallies have proved difficult to track accurately.

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