Saturday, August 30, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Don't blame charters for district woes

By Stacy Gill Phillips

After suspending provisions of the Pennsylvania Public School Code last year, the School Reform Commission (SRC) disregarded the laws that govern its charter school oversight and moved to enforce enrollment caps on public charter schools, threatening to revoke charters for noncompliance.

West Philadelphia Achievement Charter Elementary School, an independent, community-based charter that serves 600 students, is only permitted to enroll 400 under the illegal cap proposed by the district. Acquiescing to the SRC and the School District of Philadelphia's demand would force the school's administration to select 200 students to send back to the failing neighborhood schools from which they fled.

After careful deliberation and exhausting all other options, West Philadelphia Achievement decided to take action in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania against the SRC and the School District for illegally suspending provisions in the public school code and jeopardizing the very existence of charter schools in Philadelphia.

The drive behind our historic lawsuit is the best interests of students and families who are desperately seeking quality education. It is time that we shift the charter school conversation from the School District's bottom line back to the children of Philadelphia, where it belongs.

There are more than 60,000 students attending charter schools in the School District for a myriad of reasons, including safety concerns, crowded classrooms, and low test scores in many district schools. Charter schools tend to attract parents because of their smaller classrooms with higher teacher-student ratios and specialized curriculum to enhance student engagement.

A parent's decision to enroll a student in a charter is not made frivolously; many charter schools, including West Philadelphia Achievement, require a major commitment from families. We want to ensure that the students' home lives will help promote academic excellence at school, a concept lost in some district schools.

This close relationship between charter schools and families is based on the fact that charter schools generally begin with a push from families in the community. Parents, community leaders, and teachers recognize an educational void, and they offer a plan to help to fill it.

I was part of a charter school "push" when West Philadelphia Achievement was formed 13 years ago. Since then, the school has been a beacon of hope for parents who were interested in finding the best education for their children and who exercised public school choice.

The School District's disastrous financial situation was not caused by charter schools, and it will not be solved by stifling charter growth. To continue to make Philadelphia charters the district's scapegoat for its financial woes will only eliminate a viable - in some cases, the only - option for students to receive quality education in Philadelphia.

The district's budget deficit is based on decades of poor financial decisions, beginning in the 1970s, when the School District's budget doubled in a matter of 11 years - long before charter school legislation was passed in 1997.

To target charter school children because of the district's "unprecedented financial distress" is unfair to the parents who are working to provide their children with a quality education that some traditional neighborhood schools either cannot or will not provide. Many of our West Philadelphia Achievement parents live under the poverty line. They can't afford to send their children to a private school, but they rush around town on the bus each morning, in some cases going past their neighborhood school, to ensure their children get a quality education.

Children should not be viewed as having a per-pupil price tag on their heads that must be counted to hit a bottom line. Yet, the district refuses to allow moderate enrollment increases for independent, community-based charters, while showing preference to corporate-backed charter schools. This is not in the best interest of Philadelphia children.

Charter schools are created based on demand - the "push" - and enrollment and waiting lists grow as demand increases.

If the School District sees a need to control the growth of charter schools, then it should squash the tremendous demand from Philadelphia families by doing its job: offering a quality education to the city's children.

Rather than seek to close and stifle the growth of quality charter schools for financial gain, the School District must evaluate why it has lost so many students, fix where it went wrong, and achieve the level of excellence that will give parents a reason to return to district schools.


Stacy Gill Phillips is the CEO and co-founder of the West Philadelphia Achievement Charter Elementary School.

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