The national debate over so-called 'education reform' has come into sharp relief in Philadelphia, where a pro-charter, non-profit organization has offered the cash-strapped city school district up to $35 million to enroll an additional 15,000 students in new charter schools.
The one-time gift from the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP), to be given over three years, would consist of up to $25 million for the district's charter costs and a separate $10 million "to pay for in-house turnaround efforts," according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
The Philadelphia School Reform Commission, which oversees the city school district, is deliberating over 39 charter school applications on which it could vote as early as next week.
Mark Gleason, the executive director of the PSP, said he hopes the $35 million will "take the cost issue off the table for the district," clearing the way for the commission to approve the applications.
The proposal was put forth late Wednesday and has engendered sharp criticism from those who say it is a transparent scheme to advance school privatization at the expense of public education.
"We need to concentrate on restoring programs and services that have been taken from Philadelphia's schoolchildren," the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers said in a statement. "Our schools need adequate, permanent and sustainable revenue, not one-time gimmicks that jeopardize the future of our schools."
The Inquirer reports that "[l]ocally, there is significant wariness of PSP, seen by some as a threat to traditional public schools."
"It would be a terrible mistake to take the money," Susan Gobreski, executive director of the Education Voters Institute in Pennsylvania, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for public education, told the newspaper. "We cannot let benefactors make decisions like that. I'm very concerned about how much pressure is being put on the district to make decisions that are not in the best interest of the district or most of the kids in Philadelphia, and certainly not in the interest of Philadelphia as a community. This is ideology gone wild."In January, the non-profit Public Citizens for Children and Youth released a report suggesting that "if the School Reform Commission approves additional charters its actions would stand at odds with state law that requires the Commission to both ensure the welfare of all its students and ensure the fiscal solvency of the District."
"[O]pening the flood gates to new charters will harm students attending district-run schools," said PCCY executive director Donna Cooper said at the time. "District-run schools have too few teachers, shuttered libraries, and limited access to arts or a robust academic curriculum. Any action that increases charter cost to the district will cripple these schools."
And while Gleason and the PSP claim their multi-million-dollar offer would "take the cost issue off the table," the Philadelphia School District says it would cost as much as $500 million to enroll 15,000 more students in new charter schools—about 20 times more than the amount offered by the non-profit.
"PSP estimates that the district loses about $2,000 every time a student enrolls at a charter school," explained at Philadelphia magazine. "The district, meanwhile, has been estimating its per-student charter costs as $7,000. That's quite a delta. The district's estimate may be wrong, but if not, a $2,000 coupon off a $7,000 expense falls well short of taking the cost issue 'off the table'."