Who should new Philly charters serve? Critics and hopefuls make their cases

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 Ben Persofsky is leading the coalition to found a new charter school in Center City. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Ben Persofsky is leading the coalition to found a new charter school in Center City. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

What charter schools does Philadelphia need? That’s the question the School Reform Commission is tasked with answering by selecting from this year’s round of 40 new charter applicants.

 

The district urged charters to set up shop in neighborhoods where the neediest, most expensive to educate students live. But many new charter hopefuls, including investment banker Ben Persofsky, decided to take a different tack.

Persofsky is leading the coalition for the Partnership School for Science and Innovation, one of two new charters proposed by MaST. MaST already runs a highly touted charter in Northeast Philadelphia known for its sleek use of technology in the classroom, incorporating 3-D printers and robotics into a STEM and arts-based curriculum.

Persofsky wants MaST to open a K-12 school at Seventh and Market streets — right in the heart of Center City — and cover much of the same ground as some well-ranked district-run schools: Albert M. Greenfield, George A. McCall and William M. Meredith elementary schools.

Persofsky’s theory is that bringing a charter school with a good reputation to where wealthier families live would slow the brain drain to the suburbs — and grow the tax base that helps pay for all publicly funded city schools.

“If we add more high quality seats and help more people get into them, then you’ve helped people keep them,” said Persofsky. “That’s some incremental dollars.”

Charter proposals and priorities

Persofsky is not alone. Only 12 of the 40 proposed charter schools plan to locate in or serve one of the ZIP codes singled out by the district as most in need of new, high quality schools.

Another applicant, String Theory Schools, put in four different applications to open schools in Gray’s Ferry, Port Richmond, Pennsport and East Falls — neighborhoods close to Center City, where rising housing prices have started pushing out some low-income families.

String Theory Schools co-founder Jason Corsinate said the schools didn’t set out to target gentrifying neighborhoods. “We explored different parts of the city … those four areas coalesced around community support and individuals on the ground that asked us to come there.”

These areas also not the neighborhoods that the district selected as priorities to serve – and the schools therefore may not be as competitive when it comes time to sift through all of the applications.

The district encouraged applicants to propose new schools in ZIP codes 19121, 19134, 19139, 19140, 19142 and 19143 and to “draw students from particular catchment areas or neighborhoods.” According to the application guidelines, the district targeted those areas based on existing “school quality, balance of school district and charter options, school district school utilization rates, and poverty rates.”

But String Theory Schools is on a slightly different mission than serving a single neighborhood. Corsinate said founders are in talks to open schools in other states and hope to replicate the scope and brand recognition of charter companies such as KIPP. “We believe there is a String Theory School for every neighborhood,” said Corsinate.

For his part, Persofsky wants to use a weighted lottery to insure income diversity in PSSI. Pulling from two main catchment areas, PSSI would have a 70/30 split: 70 percent from core Center City ZIP codes, and 30 percent from the areas identified by the district as high needs.

At the charter hearings, representatives of the School Reform Commission – who will ultimately make the call on which charters are approved – asked Persofsky why not increase the number of students from the priority ZIP codes.

“There’s no easy answer,” said Persofsky, who believes the school could have more economic and racial diversity than neighborhood district schools where housing prices determine who can attend.

But he added that a weighted ratio was just a “framework,” not a final answer.

The larger picture

In the debate about school choice, parents end up being the “consumers.” Greenfield School, a district-run elementary school at 22nd and Chestnut streets, falls squarely in the area Persofsky proposes to draw from with PSSI.

On a Friday morning, parent Mike McGrath was hanging out in the school’s office, ready to start his shift as volunteer librarian and kindergarten class helper.

About eight years ago, McGrath and his wife were weighing school options near their home in Fairmount – a neighborhood by the Philadelphia Art Museum that’s popular with young, college-educated families.

“You can’t walk around the block without tripping over two or three baby carriages there,” said McGrath. But, he said, once the kids grow out of those strollers, something happens. “When the kids get to be about 3 or 4, they’re out of there … to the suburbs.”

McGrath was able to get his daughter – now in sixth grade — into Greenfield Elementary, a popular Center City neighborhood school, even though he doesn’t live in the area designated for that school.

Due to increased enrollment from its catchment area (roughly Center City West), Greenfield has stopped taking new transfer students like McGrath’s daughter, so parents have to decide whether to go to the neighborhood school, pay for a private or parochial school, or leave.

Though he said he’s a staunch supporter of traditional public schools, if he were in that position now, McGrath said he would consider opting for a charter school – as long as it was high quality.

“It would pain me to do so, but yes. I would investigate them absolutely. Because an opportunity is an opportunity,” he said. “I am concerned for the larger picture though.”

The larger picture, in this case, is the district as a whole.

Critics of charter school expansion believe new charters exacerbate inequality in the district by taking money away from neighborhood schools that usually end up teaching the poorest and neediest students.

In Pennsylvania, that criticism intensified in 2011 when Gov. Tom Corbett eliminated part of the state’s education budget intended to offset the unintended – or “stranded” — costs incurred when students leave district schools for charter schools.

The district estimates those costs at about $7,000 per student in the first year out of a district-run school.

This week, the Philadelphia School Partnership — a group that raises money to promote and fund innovation in district and charter schools — committed $25 million to the district to make up for some of the costs of opening new charters. For context, Philadelphia received around $170 million from the state for stranded costs in 2010.

If new charters are approved, “you would be further disadvantaging students who go to district-run schools by choice or not,” said Donna Cooper, executive director of education advocacy group Public Citizens for Children and Youth.

Her group released a report last month that recommended the SRC deny all of the new charter applicants. It also broke down the demographics and performance of charter applicants already operating schools. The conclusion? Most don’t serve as many special education, English-language learner and low-income students as the average district-run school.

So if more charters open, said Cooper, it’s those schools that lose out. She also pointed out that many of the proposed charters move in on areas where the district has already invested money in university partnerships and other tactics for improving District-run schools.

Even Ben Persofsky admitted that, without more money for the entire district, approving his school might not make sense right now.

“If it were a question of only approving one charter school, this is not the one to approve,” said Persofsky. “This is an investment in the city itself.”

Whether that’s the right investment for this year is a question the School Reform Commission by law has to finish grappling with by mid-February.

However, due to the “unprecedented” number of applicants, the SRC has requested an extension on that deadline from the charter hopefuls themselves, proposing to make the decision by June 1 instead.

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