Included in its decision to close dozens of schools — per the recommendations included in the Facilities Master Plan, the Five-Year Financial Plan and the Blueprint for Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools — the School Reform Commission built in a three-month wait period between when a school is first targeted for closure and when the closing process actually begins.
That 90-day gap was specifically installed to allow parents, stakeholders and the community at large a chance to voice their concerns about the closures, and for the district to see if there were other options worth pursuing. Now, several entities are irked that the SRC apparently decided late last week to do away with the three-month grace period, essentially paving the way for the district to fast-track school closings while bypassing long-held practices of community engagement.
During its clandestine meeting, the SRC apparently decided to reduce per-pupil charter school funding as well. That the SRC held such a covert meeting to come to its conclusions hasn’t helped relations, either.
The Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools was among the first to respond, issuing a scathing release.
“Last Thursday evening the Philadelphia School Reform Commission voted unanimously, and without public notice or comment, to suspend parts of the Charter Reform Law. This action is seriously misguided and is a stealthy and blatant abuse of both power and trust. The SRC action is an attempt to decree that charter schools in Philadelphia cannot be paid for any student enrolled in a charter school unless such enrollment was unilaterally pre-approved by the SRC. By taking this action, the SRC is attempting to place itself above both the legislature and the courts, which have both declared such action to be illegal,” read the PCPCS’ statement. “Moreover, this action comes as a surprise to most members of the Philadelphia Compact Committee that was established to work together to make more high quality seats available for all the children of Philadelphia. If left unchallenged, the repercussions of this decree could potentially force thousands of children currently enrolled in charter schools out of those schools and back into the poor performing school from which they escaped, and quash the hopes of more than 32,000 children on waiting lists to get into high performing charter schools.
“The bottom line is that the SRC has made the value judgment that maintaining power and control on its terms is more important than either maintaining the option of high performing independent charter schools, or improving the future for thousands of children in Philadelphia.”
While not taking a position on the charter funding issue, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan said decisions such as these — coupled with the state laws that are skewed toward increasing charter school funding while stripping it away from traditional schools — have shown to parents and others that the SRC cares less about community and more about its bottom line.
Jordan has long been a critic of the closure plans and the district’s funding of the charter school system, even as it only recently closed its budget deficit by obtaining a $300 million loan.
“Closing schools means you’re really closing a hub in many communities, and it must be done with community input; it should not appear that it’s something that is rushed,” Jordan said, noting that charter schools, by and large, do not suffer from such attacks, explaining that the state gives charters a full year to state a case before closure, and that state law also mandates the school district provide bused transportation – not SEPTA TransPasses – for charter school students. “People need to understand why a particular school is closing, and be able to question why, and if it’s in the best interest of the neighborhood.”
Jordan also illuminated the other major problems that closing a school will bring, further signifying the importance of the three-month waiting period.
“In a great many cases, children may very well have to cross turf, and that’s very serious. We learned a lesson a few years ago with the school closings in Chicago, where students were killed traveling back and forth to school,” Jordan said. “And with issues of transportation, there are other concerns, as we are always mindful of student attendance, and we don’t want to put children in a situation where they will become poor attenders while they’re dealing with things such as these.”
SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos confirmed and defended the district’s decision, explaining that the district financial status enables it to do away with parts – or all – of the code.
“Last Thursday, the SRC suspended two sections of the school code. One of them related to the ability to manage and predict public charter school enrollment. The suspension of the charter provision has no short-term impact on existing charter schools seats, since staff has not been directed to change practices in any way adverse to charters at this time. The SRC has said repeatedly and made clear in the press that we want to continue to work on mutually agreeable enrollment plans, as we've done with so many schools in the last year. However, the SRC must also be prepared to use the tools provided by law if necessary to saving and strengthening the public school system,” Ramos’ statement read. “As a school district in “financial distress,” the SRC has been given the authority to suspend portions of the school code and regulations. The SRC has done so in the past in a variety of circumstances, and will have to continue to do so in the future, when necessary for the sustainability of public education.”
The Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools — a pro-public education umbrella organization that formed last spring after the SRC announced a further round of cuts – also issued a statement condemning the SRC for pulling the wait time.
“The School Reform Commission's decision to suspend the three-month school closing waiting period is simply the latest evidence of its indifference to students, parents, teachers and communities across the City. A process for closing schools already tarnished by its lack of transparency is now even murkier,” read PCAPS statement. “Rather than speeding up the effort to close dozens of schools, the SRC and our elected officials should be conducting community-impact studies to determine how shuttered schools will affect already-struggling neighborhoods and families — not to mention the School District's grim fiscal reality. They should be making an honest effort to understand how these closings would impact students, parents, teachers and school employees — not making vague promises about collecting public feedback after their decision has been made.
“Philadelphia needs more healthy, vibrant schools equipped with the resources necessary to truly educate our future leaders - not a closed-door, secretive effort to shutter schools, cut more jobs and ignore the desires of students, parents, teachers and concerned citizens,” PCAPS statement continued. “Unfortunately, this decision does nothing to improve student achievement, support dedicated teachers, and strengthen our city's classrooms.”