Charter gamble
 is no sure bet

Students at KIPP Charter School in North Philadelphia. (David Swanson / Staff Photographer)

The School Reform Commission may be taking too big a gamble by investing $139 million in charter-school expansions when there is evidence that many charters perform no better than traditional schools academically, and the lack of adequate regulation has birthed charters that misspend taxpayer dollars.

Charter schools should be made available for children who desperately need an alternative to city schools that are often violent and offer a poor education.

However, charters are no panacea and they do nothing to fix the bigger problem — the bad schools that the bulk of the city’s students will still attend.

Nonetheless, the troubled district has made the addition of more charters an integral component of its radical plan to restructure the school system.

The cost should give everyone reason for concern. Charter  expansions already approved by the SRC will cost the nearly insolvent district $100 million more over five years than previously estimated.

The original cost had been put at $38 million by the district’s charter school chief, Thomas Darden. But the district, which faces at least a $282 million deficit for the coming school year, now says those calculations were wrong.

Knowing that, the SRC still approved the expansions of  New Foundations Charter School and KIPP Philadelphia Charter.

To their credit, SRC members Lorene Cary and Joseph Dworetzky dissented, citing the cost of the expansions while regular public schools remain underfunded. But SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos and commissioners Feather Houstoun and Wendell Pritchett prevailed.

New Foundations in Holmesburg will increase by 211 students, and KIPP North Philadelphia by 106. Each new charter seat costs the district about $7,000 annually, which is money that otherwise would be spent on children in regular public schools.

With good reason, more than 50,000 students have fled to the district’s charters in the past decade. Many of them have landed in schools that are safer and more attractive but aren’t producing discernibly better academic results.

Cary and Dworetzky made a better suggestion: expand the district’s Renaissance schools and Promise Academies, which are successfully improving academic outcomes.

In any school system, the addition of charters should not mean an abandonment of traditional schools. Make sure they are adequately funded, and then hold them accountable for the results. If wholesale staffing changes are needed, do it.

New Jersey, too, needs to do more than depend on Gov. Christie’s plan for charters and vouchers to improve academic performance. The state last week approved nine new charters, including two more in Camden. Camden already has nine charters. There must be a related emphasis on improving the city’s abysmal regular schools.

Charters are a good option in public education. But most students continue to attend the regular public schools. They can’t be abandoned to mediocrity.