With the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education earlier this month, the state of our nation’s public school system has become a hot topic of discussion.
DeVos has been a proponent of “school choice” — the allowance of public education funds to follow students to schools that best serve their needs, whether they be public, private or charter schools. But DeVos has not been clear about how she plans to fund public schools.
Growing up in Philadelphia, I have seen what a public school system in need of funding looks like. It means a lot of budget cuts and school closings. And as a result, students here have had to suffer through overcrowding and make due with limited resources. Parents in Pennsylvania have turned to charter schools as another option for their children’s education for the past 15 years.
Charter schools, which are privately run, but publicly funded, were developed in the early 1990s as a way to test out educational innovations. Many charter schools adopt specific curricula as part of this focus on innovation — some include performing arts, language immersion and science, technology, engineering and math.
While charter schools may seem like a viable option for parents in Philadelphia, these schools draw attention and funding away from neighborhood public schools that desperately need support and state-allocated money to survive. Philadelphia charter schools should be closed so the city can invest funds in fixing its public school system and so all children have equal access to a good education.
“You have some charter networks and they truly are serving the kids and their community,” said David Bromley, an adjunct professor of urban education and the founder of Big Picture Philadelphia, which is part of a national network of schools that serves at-risk youth through educational experiences. “However, you have other charters that are just … trying to figure out how to milk the system.”
Charter schools receive funding from the state on a per-student basis. For every student enrolled, charter schools in Pennsylvania receive about 70 to 80 percent of the determined normal per-student expenses from the school district. This can range from $6,000 to $30,000 per student.
On average, per-student reimbursements to charter schools account for about 5.4 percent of Pennsylvania school budgets. This becomes problematic as public schools lose this money on a per-student basis, but still need to pay for fixed expenses, like building maintenance and staffing salaries.
But funding discrepancies aren’t so straightforward.
“At the secondary level, Philadelphia neighborhood schools actually get quite a significant amount more funding than charter schools,” Bromley said. “The elementary district K-8 schools are the ones that really, funding-wise, have gotten the short change.”
This is still an issue because K-8 schools are the backbone of children’s education, since they study there during their formative years. If students don’t receive the necessary funding and resources to succeed early on, I don’t think it’s fair to expect more funding in high school to have a dramatic impact on their achievement level.
Sarah Cordes, a school leadership professor in the College of Education, said some families lean toward charter schools because they provide them with options, like uniquely tailored curriculums. But charter schools become troublesome when only certain families have access to these options.
Cordes said access can depend “on whether you are able to actually get your kid to the charter school.”
“Do you have transportation to get them there?” she said. “Is there space in the school? Is your kid going to get counseled out of the school because of behavior issues?”
Socioeconomic status often determines a child’s access to high-quality public and charter schools. It’s not fair for those who lack resources to be without access to a good education.
“If you don’t have the means to do that you are sort of … to an extent trapped,” Cordes added.
Attending a public school shouldn’t leave students and parents feeling trapped, but poor resources due to a lack of funding, among other factors, can do just that. This is unfortunate given the whole idea of a public good is to provide for the welfare of the general population.
When families are strategizing to find ways to avoid accessing the public good that is our public education system, we need to rethink how the educational system is operating — who it is favoring and who is losing out.
We need a system that can raise all children to be equally informed adults. But when funding is redistributed and resources in the public schools are scarce, this equality of education can not be achieved.
And the truth is, our public schools won’t achieve this equality or increased levels of success while it continues to maintain charter schools.
Richelle Kota can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.