By Evan Grossman | Watchdog.org
No good deed goes unpunished.
This is especially true in Philadelphia, where the offer of a $35 million gift ignited the latest skirmish in the city’s hostile education debate.
Last week, the Philadelphia School Partnership, a philanthropic fundraiser whose mission is to invest in the startup, expansion and turnaround of public and private schools, offered the School District of Philadelphia $25 million to add 15,000 new charter school seats and another $10 million to assist in the transformation of district schools.
“I don’t think it would be wise to accept it,” said Susan Gobreski, director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania, a public school advocacy group.
The School Reform Commission, which governs SDP, is in the process of evaluating 39 applications for new charter schools for the first time since 2007. But the district forecasts an $80 million budget deficit in the coming year, and money may stand in the way of approving some — if not all — of those applications. Public Citizens for Children and Youth, a health-care and public education advocacy group, has urged the SRC to reject all of them at a time when funding anything is a challenge for the schools.
“The best way to ensure that the SRC can make decisions based solely on the merits of these applications — and give more students access to a high-quality education — is to help the district manage the stranded costs associated with charter expansion,” PSP Executive Director Mark Gleason said in a statement.
At the center of the argument — and when it comes to charter schools in Philadelphia the argument is more like a line brawl in a hockey game — is that $35 million isn’t enough to make a difference. The actual cost to expand the charter network by 15,000 students may be as high as $500 million, according to the district.
“I think it’s a donation with strings attached,” Gobreski said. “I think it creates financial obligations for the district that it can’t afford. We are asking the district to balance its budget, and we shouldn’t be asking it to do things that make it harder to do that.”
The Philadelphia district failed to respond to several calls for comment on that number and what it actually costs to create a charter school.
On an appearance Friday with Donna Cooper, PCCY executive director, on WHYY radio, Gleason said the donation is not meant to cover the entire cost of approving charters. Instead, it’s meant to help “defray” the expense the district faces when a student leaves a traditional school for a charter, also known as stranded costs that go towards things like staffing the principal’s office and paying for utilities in the building after the student has left.
As with just about every other number attached to Philadelphia schools, the amount of those stranded costs is up for debate. The district estimates those costs at $7,000 per student, based on research by the Boston Consulting Group, which issued a report in 2012 recommending the closure of more than 80 schools.
PSP, according to the district’s five-year spending plan published in December, had stranded costs at about $2,000 per student when it originally extended the offer. In an analysis of the numbers, PSP argues BCG’s arithmetic is based on hypothetical information, uses outdated enrollment numbers and is based on variable costs that have since been turned into fixed costs by the SRC, which closed 30 schools since the BCG report was completed.
“It is conceivable that $3,567 is a reasonable estimate for the first year or two of an incremental charter seat,” PSP said in a statement breaking down stranded costs. “Over time, however, the district would be able to manage that cost down.”
The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers posted a notice on its website urging readers to “Say NO to PSP’s $25 million Charter School Scheme.”
“We need to concentrate on restoring programs and services that have been taken from Philadelphia’s schoolchildren,” according to the PFT release. “Our schools need adequate, permanent and sustainable revenue, not one-time gimmicks that jeopardize the future of our schools.”
Gobreski said the PSP donation “creates more of a financial gap” because it would force the district to dig deeper into its pocket to fully fund charter expansion.
While these and other figures, such as the actual number of students on waiting lists to get into charter schools, are arguable, it’s certain Philadelphia schools are indeed stuck in a financial pit.
“In Philadelphia, it costs $3 billion to fund education, so the private sector cannot replace a well-funded public system of education,” PennCAN Executive Director Jonathan Cetel said. “This is a $25 million gift to a $3 billion enterprise. The purpose of these investments is to help fill gaps and be catalytic to make important changes happen.”