Coleman Poses testimony to the Education Committee of the Philadelphia City Council – February 29, 2016

Coleman Poses - City Council - 2-29-16

Hello, my name is Coleman Poses. I have spoken three times at the past four SRC monthly meetings about a possible Wister turn-around. My reason for coming here today is to give you a brief description of some of my testimony at these SRC meetings as well as an impression of the SRC’s response.

People on both sides of the possible Wister conversion expressed similar attitudes about several issues concerning a possible Wister turn-around. One was that resources had been increasingly in short supply at the school. Another was that the conversion of Wister to a turn-around would most likely result in an improved physical plant, and students would have new, up-to-date textbooks.

Members of the School Reform Commission have expressed the concern that additional money would not solve Wister’s problems but the data suggest otherwise. In 2007, 41.4% of the Wister students were performing at the proficient or advanced levels in math and 28.4% of those students were performing at those levels in reading. 2011 was the high water mark of State funding to the district, although this money was still insufficient, according to the State funding formula then in existence. In that year, those numbers shot up to 58% proficient or better in math, and 44% in reading. Four years of extreme fiscal austerity, however, which saw the reduction of 7 teachers, 1 counselor, and 52% of the supply budget at Wister, had subsequently reduced these numbers to the single digits. Nevertheless, over the last three years, Wister still managed to post positive gains, even after last year’s extremely difficult revised PSSA exam.

How do these numbers compare to those of Mastery, the charter school company that the SRC invited to take over the administration of Wister? One way to compare progress is to look at the Mann Elementary School, the only Mastery School among Wister’s 19 peers – schools with similar grade levels and demographics – according to the School District of Philadelphia’a School Progress Report.

It is true that Mann scored higher in academic achievement during this time, earning 28% of all possible points, whereas Wister scored only 7%, but Wister’s score showed an improvement from 5% over the previous year, and an improvement from 4% from the 2012-2013 school year. These increases are certainly modest, but they follow a continuous positive trend, as compared with Mann’s downward trajectory from 57% to 28%.

There seems to be a belief among the SRC members that something magical happens when a charter school takes over a district school. It is reminiscent of the folk-tale about Stone Soup, where two travelers convince the stingy but gullible townsfolk that the rock in the duo’s possession has certain powers to make a delicious soup, but it would be even more delicious if the citizens themselves provided the meat, bones, vegetables, etc. The problem is that in the case of Stone Soup, the rock is inert. It does no harm, and everybody wins. Not so when charters are added to the mix. As Marge Neff has said, this is a “zero-sum game.” If charters gain money, then the district loses money. Many of these charters run high fund balances at the end of the year. The City Controller estimated those reserves to be $117 million in 2014. In the case of Mastery Schools, those fund balances run over 40% of their expenses, whereas the District’s reserves run around 2%. A healthy non-profit’s reserves should run around 10% of expenses. Any additional reserves should go back to the district. It would not be a panacea for student achievement, but it would go a long way toward easing the pain that public schools such as Wister, have been experiencing. Thank you.