Charter critics ignore fiscal, education realities

Second graders at MaST Community Charter School, on Byberry Road in the Northeast, gather around the floor projector in the Media Center to look at their school using Google Earth.

All of us agree that every child in Philadelphia deserves a chance at a quality education. Yet the bitter debate for years has been a zero sum game - that is, whether traditional public schools or public charter schools offer the best shot at achieving that goal.

The current flashpoint for this battle is over "stranded costs," the expenses the School District of Philadelphia bears when children leave district schools to attend a public charter. It's time for a little truth-telling on this issue, and we need look no further than the district's recently released study on stranded costs, known as the Afton Report, which reaches a telling conclusion.

The report makes clear that the School District could eliminate the vast majority of its stranded costs if it were to make better decisions about how it spends money.

Consider: The Afton Report and the district's audit show that district middle and high schools operate on average at 62 percent capacity. This means that dollars we could be spending on supporting the arts, libraries, and math enrichment in district schools are instead going to keep open struggling, half-empty schools.

The report shows that even though per-pupil funding for the district is higher than in charter schools, charters actually spend a higher percentage of funding on instructional costs (60 percent to the district's 57 percent). And let's not forget that a 2015 Stanford University study shows this paying off. It found that charter school students in Philadelphia receive the equivalent of 43 more days of reading and math instruction than their district counterparts during a single school year. Over the course of a K-12 career, that adds up to three additional years of learning.

Finally, the report notes that the district spends far more than charters on personnel costs (62 percent vs. 40 percent), including pension and health-care benefits that are among the most extravagant in the nation. As a result, the report concludes that even with less money, charters can afford to hire three teachers for every two in the district.

The report shows us that if the district took steps to responsibly reduce costs and spend more wisely, it could virtually eliminate the stranded costs posed by charters and invest in improving district schools.

Charter critics simply ignore this reality, choosing instead to blame the families who are fleeing under-performing district schools. If these families stayed put, the thinking goes, then we wouldn't have stranded costs and schools that have struggled for decades - long before charters even existed - would be great.

But for too many families, the term "stranded costs" has a wholly different meaning: either they find better educational options, or their children will be stranded in schools that offer little chance at a quality education.

To give every child that chance — whether at a district or charter school — requires real reform and tough decisions. Closing underutilized schools is painful, and making changes to staffing policies requires hard work. Reforming pensions and health care means hard bargaining with an intransigent teachers' union.

But real reform starts with telling the truth, particularly when it comes to the impact of charters on both the district's budget and the nearly 70,000 children who attend public charter schools.

And that truth is clear: No child deserves to be stranded in an underperforming school, no matter how many hard decisions that requires.

Mike Wang is executive director of Philadelphia School Advocacy Partners. mwang@philaschooladvocacy.org

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