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Philadelphia school crisis not a question of choice

By   /   October 25, 2013  /   No Comments

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GIVE THEM CHOICE: Protesters took to the streets of Philadelphia this summer calling for increased funding for public schools. School choice experts say allowing parents to pull their children from violent, failing schools isn’t causing the problem in Philadelphia classrooms..

 

By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org

Charter schools and tax-credit scholarships aren’t responsible for the crisis in Philadelphia public schools, said Priya Abraham, senior policy analyst at the Commonwealth Foundation, despite claims of some public school proponents.

“Philadelphia city schools do have a crisis, but it’s a crisis of failure. They have for many, many years been violent and failing,” she said. “There are thousands of assaults each year on students and staff. At the same time, 20 to 30 percent of students can read or do math at grade level.”

“They’re violent and failing. This is the real longstanding crisis,” she said.

That’s in addition to the financial crisis. This year, 40 schools closed and the ones still open have seen severe cuts. At least one death has been blamed on the cuts: a 12-year-old girl with asthma may have survived had a nurse still been employed at the school, the girl’s father claimed.

Moody’s Investor Service report released earlier this month called charter schools out for contributing to the failure of traditional public school districts in Philadelphia and other cities.

Charter schools can pull students and revenues away from districts faster than the districts can reduce their costs, Moody’s said.

“As some of these districts trim costs to balance out declining revenues, cuts in programs and services will further drive students to seek alternative institutions, including charter schools,” Moody’s said in a news release.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools released a statement responding to the report.

“What Moody’s may consider ‘bad’ for a small handful of school districts may not be bad for children. Public money should be used to ensure all children can attend a high quality public school and if, in delivering on that commitment, some poor performing schools or school districts lose students and revenue because they are no longer serving as many students, that is ultimately better for the families and the taxpayers in those communities,” said Nina Rees, president and CEO, in the statement.

Requests to attend charter schools has “skyrocketed” this year, said Otto Banks, executive director of the REACH Foundation.

“When these schools close, parents are going to panic: where am I going to send my child, what am I going to do? How is that going to look? Is my kid going to have to get on a train? There are several different fears that must be addressed,” he said. “There’s always going to be the accessibility issue: how far is my school away from where I live. If something happens to my child am I going to be able to get there in a timely manner?”

“With the Philadelphia district, I’m sure many of the issues they have with time will be resolved, but until then, we want to make sure parents have freedom and options,” he said.

The district’s financial problems stem from “years and years of mismanagement,” Abraham said.

Since 1987, auditors have warned the district of impending financial problems, PA Independent reports.

Abraham pointed specifically to the generous health and fringe benefits teachers receive, including a legal services fund providing teachers with personal matters like making wills or buying homes. Further, she said, severance pay can be in the millions.

“Parents, understandably, are desperate to get their kids in better schools. That is a lot of the reason for the rising popularity of charter schools, because at the very least, they’re safe,” she said.

This means declining enrollment in district schools.

“When you have declining enrollment, you just don’t need as many staff or as many resources, but the district has failed to adjust to that,” she said.

The crisis has come to a head this year, and the district asked teachers to take a pay cut. That sparked a heated budget negotiation, and teachers are now working under the expired contract as negotiations continue, said George Jackson, spokesman for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

Contact Mary C. Tillotson at mtillotson@watchdog.org.

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Mary C. Tillotson is a national education reporter for Watchdog.org. She has reported for School Reform News, published by the Heartland Institute, and The St. Ignace News in northern Michigan. Contact Mary at mtillotson@watchdog.org.