Commentary: Charters not really a good choice for parents and kids

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The following Commentary by APPS co-founder Lisa Haver was published by the Philadelphia Daily News on October 3, 2016. Read the comments.

School choice is one of many issues that illustrate the stark difference between the two major candidates for president. While Hillary Clinton, supported by teachers’ unions, has expressed support for charters within a robust public system, Donald Trump promises to use the power of the presidency to promote school choice policies and replace “the failed tenure system” with merit pay for teachers. Trump recently proposed a massive voucher system in which over $20 billion in federal funds would be distributed to states so that parents could choose among “public, private, charter or magnet” schools.

While the promise of “choice” – placing education in an unregulated free-market system of winners and losers – has been sold by reformers as the answer to the underfunding of public schools for over a decade, the power of those in struggling districts to make decisions about their public schools has been stripped from them as a result of “interventions” imposed by governors and legislatures across the country. An analysis by News21 found that lawmakers in at least 20 states have either eliminated locally-elected school boards or stripped them of their power. African Americans make up 43 percent, and Hispanics 20 percent, of those disenfranchised by these takeovers. Philadelphia lost control of its school district when Harrisburg imposed the appointed and unaccountable School Reform Commission on the city in 2001.

School choice has been sold as a way to give opportunities to those painted as trapped in “failing” urban public schools. But a recent brief by the National Education Policy Center has found “an unsettling degree of segregation – particularly in charter schools – by race and ethnicity, as well as by poverty, special needs and English-learner status.” And studies continue to show that charters do not, even with additional resources, outperform public schools.

The truth is that when school districts under state control decide to privatize public schools, parents end up with fewer choices – or none. As a result of the SRC’s surprise vote last January to allow Mastery Charters to take control of John Wister Elementary School as part of the districts “Renaissance” program, families in that East Germantown catchment area no longer have access to a truly public school. Wister students feed into Pickett Middle/High School, which was taken over by Mastery nine years ago. Unless given special dispensation by district officials, their children must attend a charter school, with its rigid “no-excuses” discipline policy, from kindergarten through senior year of high school. The same dilemna faces those in the Mastery Cleveland Elementary catchment area, where students feed into Mastery Gratz Middle/High School. The only other option is to move, although some parents who have done that found themselves in the same position when their new school was targeted for takeover.

This is a precarious position for families to be forced into. Charters can and have unexpectedly shut down midyear, as Walter D. Palmer Charter did two years ago. Young Scholars Charters has walked away from two North Philadelphia elementary schools, Kenderton and Douglass, in the past two years, forcing the district into a hasty decision to take back management or find another provider. Kenderton parents organized an emergency meeting, but soon realized that they had no say in that decision.

Two years ago, Superintendent William Hite allowed parents at two North Philadelphia schools to vote on whether to allow a charter company of the district’s choosing to take control of the schools. Parents at both schools voted overwhelmingly to remain public. Thus, in 2015, parents and students at three more district schools were given no vote, but simply informed that their schools were to be placed in the Renaissance program. The choice had been made for them.

Education reformers continue to argue that opening more charters at the expense of public schools means increased “choice” for parents. Is this really a choice for parents – to send your children to a charter school or pull up stakes? Parents don’t want to go school shopping any more than consumers wanted to pick an electric company. They want districts to distribute resources equitably, so that children in every neighborhood have access to safe and stable schools.