PFT president: halt Renaissance charter process

UPDATE, 12:35

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan has called for an end to the district's Renaissance charter process.

Jordan deviated from testimony he had planned to make to urge Council, at an education committee hearing, to use its influence to help stop the process, which has given multiple district schools to private providers in the past few years.

Four more schools - Creighton, Edmunds, Cleveland and Jones - are scheduled to be given to charters in September.  The SRC will vote on these conversions next month.

"The school district's rationale for converting four neighborhood public schools into charter schools in September is flawed and should raise serious questions about whether the district's charter conversion plan is about raising student achievement, or whether there is another agenda."

Jordan said the move to give district schools to charters is politically motivated.  He said certain charter companies are attempting to create their own school systems in the city using public money.

"The Renaissance Charter program isn't about improving achievement," Jordan said.  "It's about divvying up schools, fragmenting and privatizing public education and, in the end, creating an even less equitable public school system."

Jordan said that all four schools slated to be given over to charters have shown growth, and that other district schools are in worse shape.

Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, the education committee chair, called Jordan's testimony "very important" and said it demanded answers from the SRC.

Earlier, Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership, struck a different note.

Gleason, whose organization was established in 2010 to fund high-performing schools, district, charter and private, said that charters help expand choice and create equity for all parents.

He's part of a steering committee for the Great Schools Compact, a document signed by city, state and district officials late last year which vows to close seats in low-performing schools and expand opportunities in good schools.

"The compact," Gleason said, "is not about expanding just charters, it's about expanding great schools.  That means improving or expanding district schools, expanding and improving charter schools, expanding or improving private schools.  And it's about increasing parents' and students' access to all of those."


City Council's Education Committee is holding hearings on Philadelphia School District issues today - I'm livetweeting, if you want to check it out.

The headline so far?  SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos acknowledged that "bad fiscal policy" by prior administrations put the district in its current fiscal pickle. 

The SRC has been almost completely reconstituted since September.  It's brought huge changes already, but still has more to make. 

When Ramos arrived, officials had already cut more than $600 from the budget through layoffs, program cuts and union concessions. But it has had to cut millions more, and still faces a shortfall of $26 million that must be dealt with by June.  And the shortfall for fiscal 2013 is daunting - as much as $400 million, but likely at least $269 million. (The district will introduce a 2012-13 lump sum budget at its meeting on Thursday, so we should have more details on this soon.)

So, Councilman Mark Squilla asked Ramos, how did we get here?

We know that federal stimulus funds went away - hundreds of millions that helped build programs and, officials told us, boost achievement.  State support for the district, which provides more than half of district funding, was slashed after years of rising.

But, Ramos said, it was also "bad fiscal policy."  The district borrows - a lot.  And when it got more money, instead of paying down debt, it invested in new programs it now can't sustain.

Why? Squilla asked.  (Ramos pointed out several times that neither he nor Squilla was sitting in their current chairs last year.)

But also: "I think at the time there were a lot of optimistic projections about what they could accomplish.  Not all those projections had good plans behind them,” Ramos said.

More to come. There are nearly 40 speakers on tap, on topics ranging from school closings to charters.