City and state politics are rife with debate over the School District of Philadelphia and its lack of funding. Concerned parents and campaigning politicians are pitted against each other over the issue of charter schools.
But while some may argue that charter schools are providing a quality education, they pose structural and funding issues to Philadelphia’s public schools, and in turn problems for students.
State Senator and current mayoral candidate Anthony H. Williams is a proponent of charter schools and the idea of “school choice,” or the ability for students and their parents to choose what school to send their child to, whether it be public, charter, parochial or private.
In 2011, Williams wrote an op-ed for PennLive.com supporting the idea of school choice:
“School choice is not an alternative to public education,” Williams wrote. “It is a vital part of an innovative and productive public education system.”
Williams recognized the failings of the school district, claiming that forcing students to stay in a continually underperforming Philadelphia public school system is doing students a disservice, and that dumping more money into the School District of Philadelphia is not the right answer.
“Forcing children to remain in a system that fails to provide them with a quality education is not an acceptable outcome when proven options could be made available.” Williams wrote.
In this aspect, Williams is correct. In order for our children to get the best education, we must give them all the opportunity of going to the best schools with the most resources.
David Lapp, a staff attorney for the Education Law Center in Philadelphia, talked about how some of the charter schools’ operating methods can exclude students.
“In order to get into a charter school, you have to apply,” Lapp said. “Just the mere extra step that it takes to get into a charter school – to find the school, to find out if it has the grades that your kid wants to be in, all of those things have a sort of self-selecting effect on the pool of students that are attempting to get into the charter schools.”
Kids in foster care or who are homeless or don’t speak English, he added, also face discrimination in the application process.
Lapp also said that some charter schools include illegal application requirements for students with disabilities, leading to charter schools serving less students with disabilities, many of whom have less severe learning disabilities than those in public schools.
Because Philadelphia public schools are required to take students who live in their neighborhood despite their capacity, they are at a severe disadvantage in educating students compared to charter schools. Lapp noted that the charter school size limits are leaving Philadelphia public schools as a whole with a higher percentage of poor and special education students to educate.
In order to fix charter school enrollment issues, Lapp suggested an online database of charter school enrollment numbers throughout the year, and an easier process of enrolling students to be accepted to charter schools that are rumored to be full.
The charter school application process, the lesser amount of special education students and the ability to put a cap on classroom size, all provide charter schools with a distinct advantage. They left public schools a disaster in the process, most with overcrowded classrooms, more special education and lower income students, while working on a thin budget.
Shanee Garner, educational policy co-director for Public Citizens for Children and Youth, further discussed the problems that occur when trying to compare schools with different student bases.
“It’s not really fair to compare the performance of a charter school that has 15 percent special education and 60 percent low income [students] to a school that has 30 percent special education and 100 percent low income kids,” she said.
But closing all charter schools and sending all of Philadelphia’s school children to public schools to better their numbers is not the answer either. Without adequate funding, this would only exacerbate the current financial situation of the district. A better solution for ensuring adequate funding and improving the educational status of all Philadelphia’s schools is to use a funding formula.
Currently, school funding in Pennsylvania is based not on the number of students in a school, the income level of the neighborhood, or the amount of property taxes collected from the neighborhood. In actuality, there is no funding formula at all – Pennsylvania is one of three states without one, according to the Education Law Center. School funding is left up to the discretion of the Pennsylvania state government on a yearly basis, leaving schools in the dark without an ability to plan for the future.
Both Lapp and Garner agreed that a fair-funding formula needs to be established for public schools in order to ensure a quality education.
“School districts that are adding students that are increasing the [overall] number of students are getting screwed because they’re not getting funded adequately, while [neighborhood schools that are] losing students … are being overfunded.” Lapp said. “There’s not any rational method for the way we fund.”
“People say that money doesn’t matter.” Garner said. “But across the road in Lower Merion, folks spend two-times the amount on kids. If this is something that the schools can deal with, then I wonder why Lower Merion isn’t paying $12,000 per kid, why they’re [paying] over $30,000 [per child]?”
With public schools already being unfairly compared to charter schools, an underfunded school district is spelling disaster for Philadelphia as a whole. Many parents move out of Philadelphia to provide their children with a better education in the suburbs, according to phillymag.com. Should things not improve, this would hurt Philadelphia’s overall-tax base and population growth, and can turn back the clock on Philadelphia to a time when cities were not desirable places to live.
As people who chose to spend our lives here, we cannot afford to let this happen.
Christian Matozzo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.