Why Charter Schools Exist Mainly Among Urban Poor

by Christopher Paslay

Outside of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, charter schools in Pennsylvania are virtually nonexistent.  One reason is that socioeconomically disadvantaged children and their families are easier to manipulate.      

Here are some basic facts about charter schools in the state of Pennsylvania.  In 2011, only 54.7 percent made AYP under the No Child Left Behind Law.  Stanford University’s CREDO report, which examined the performance of Pennsylvania charter schools from 2007 to 2010, concluded:

“Overall, charter school performance in Pennsylvania lagged in growth compared to traditional public schools. . . . Performance at cyber charter schools was substantially lower than the performance at brick and mortar charters with 100% of cyber charters performing significantly worse than their traditional public school counterparts in both reading and math. . . . Charter schools of all ages in Pennsylvania on average perform worse than traditional public schools, and charter school students grow at lower rates compared to their traditional public school peers in their first 3 years in charter schools, although the gap shrinks considerably in math and disappears entirely in reading by the third year of attendance.”

There are 3,096 public schools in Pennsylvania, yet only 142 of them—one half of one percent—are charters.  Of these 142 charters, 80 of them (56 percent) are in Philadelphia, another 15 are in the Pittsburgh/Allegheny area, and the remaining 47 are sparsely scattered throughout the rest of the state.  Outside of poor urban areas, charter schools are practically nonexistent.             

If charters are the new fix for “failing” public schools, why haven’t they caught on in the suburbs?  Why haven’t they caught on in rural areas or mountain regions?  The answer is because charters are not better than traditional public schools, and there are heaps of data to prove this.  Most families outside of urban areas understand this reality, which is why charters and their enterprising operators have been unable to successfully set-up shop there.  Suburbanites don’t want charters, they don’t want business people with limited educational experience messing with their children and controlling their school resources (the head of the Philadelphia Parking Authority recently proposed opening a charter, if you can believe that).  Why, then, are charters so widely accepted in Philadelphia?        

One reason might be that 80.6 percent of families of public school children in Philadelphia are economically disadvantaged, and they are easier to take advantage of.  Yes, they are being taken advantage of, and here’s how. 

First, charters falsely advertise they are superior academically, despite all the research showing otherwise.  Many urban poor are not in a position to access research on charter school performance, so they simply believe what they hear or are told; the propagandistic film Waiting for Superman is a case in point.  In short, the urban poor are being misled.    

Second, charter schools discriminate and play by their own rules.  It is a documented fact that charter schools fail to serve the neediest population of children.  KIPP charters (Knowledge Is Power Program) are a prime example.  Because KIPP schools have extended school days and hold classes on weekends, the student turnover rate is extremely high for Black males—over 40 percent dropout between grades 6 – 8.  As a result, these students are sent back to neighborhood schools.  In addition, KIPP is criticized for not serving more English Language Learners and students with disabilities.

Although there’s yet to be any noteworthy litigation in Pennsylvania against charter operators (the key word is yet), parents of school children in Louisiana have filed a class-action lawsuit against the New Orleans school system, arguing that their charters exclude special-needs students.  The Miami Herald recently wrote a series titled “Cashing In on Kids” which highlighted the fact that South Florida charter operators are getting rich on “school choice” by admitting very few special needs children and minorities into their schools.  This discrimination is widespread and very real.  I’ve personally met numerous parents whose children are on waiting lists to get into a charter—or have been removed from a charter—because they couldn’t pass the muster.                 

Third, charters take money away from struggling neighborhood schools.  Interestingly, it’s not academics that attracts many urban parents to charter schools.  The lure of charters seems to be the fact that many are cleaner, safer, and smaller than big, decaying neighborhood schools.  This is true in some cases, but there’s a reason: charters weed out dysfunctional children and their struggling families, and siphon money away from traditional neighborhood schools that could be used for upgrade and repair.

This is a clear civil rights violation, and sets in motion a cycle of 21st century school segregation.  As time goes on, as charters continue to expand, there will be more and more separation between charters and traditional schools, until the neediest 30 – 40 percent (made up of primarily English Language Learners, the disabled, and those children with social, emotional, and behavioral disorders) are left completely behind.  In other words, despite the big promises, charters by their very nature will never help a large population of the urban poor.                           

And many socioeconomically disadvantaged parents don’t understand this.  They view clean, neat, nifty new charters as a lottery ticket, and jump at it.  Little do they know that there’s a good chance that their child won’t get into that school, that their son or daughter will be left behind in the forgotten neighborhood school, which has been further weaken by the existence of the charter. Sure, those lucky enough to get into a charter may have a cleaner, safer, more appropriate learning environment, but this is only achieved at the expense of the neediest 30 – 40 percent of children plagued with disorders who are weeded out and left behind.  This might be acceptable in a private school using private funds, but it’s unconstitutional when it’s being done with public tax dollars.   

If only urban parents could see that making a commitment to their neighborhood school—like parents do in most other parts of the state—would be a better solution in the long run.  If only they could team up with elected officials to generate the resources needed to complete building renovations and repairs, upgrade materials, and invest in technology.  If only they could convince educational policy makers to revamp curriculum to make it more individualized and authentic, and expand alternative schools and programs to remediate troubled youth.  If only they could convince local leaders to invest in families and communities in order to create a culture of learning available to all children within the bounds of a neighborhood, instead of running away.                             

Although charters in Pennsylvania don’t outperform traditional neighborhood schools academically, they do turn a large profit.  Privatization of public schools (and tax dollars) is a big business, and unlike the more advantaged populations of Pennsylvania, the urban poor are prime real estate.


Philadelphia Schoolteacher Announces Plans to Open Cybercharter and Make Millions

by Christopher Paslay


Here’s the plan: I’m going to start a charter school in Philadelphia and make a million dollars.  Not just any charter, mind you, a cybercharter.  I’m thinking about naming it after myself and calling it Chris’s Cyber Charter.  Either that, or Lee Iacocca Cyber Charter.  Anybody want in?   

Currently, the Philadelphia School District pays nearly $9,000 per student for cybercharters.  How much of that money is actually spent on the students is unclear.  But when you take into consideration that officials in western Pennsylvania’s North Hills School District have estimated that cybercharters spend less than $1,000 per year on each of their students, there’s a lot of room for profit in the Philadelphia cybercharter industry.   

I figure I can clear about $8,000 per student on my new business venture.  This means that if I can recruit a meager 10 students to enroll in Chris’s Cyber Charter, I’ll equal my current salary teaching.  If I can sign up 20 students, I’ll double my pay.  If I can talk 120 students into coming on board, I’ll make my first million before the age of 40.  Anybody want in?

Opening a charter school is not as daunting a task as one may think.  The website “US Charter Schools” explains that there are four basic steps to starting a charter: exploration, application, pre-operations, and operations. 

The exploration phase first involves investigating state laws and reviewing chartering agency policies.  Most of this, incredibly, can be done online.  Next, an organizing committee must be formed to plan the charter.  The team assembled to launch Chris’s Cyber Charter will incorporate the expertise of none other than me, myself and I. 

I will draft the school’s mission statement, which will be to make as much money as humanly possible.  But I of course won’t write it like that.  Instead, to remain reputable in the public eye and to help recruit students, the mission statement will be something like, Chris’s Cyber Charter is dedicated to the success of students who have not had their needs met in a traditional public school setting.  CCC is dedicated to providing the educational programs and services necessary for all children, regardless of race, ethnicity, and learning style, to become productive, responsible members of society. 

I will also design the instructional program (it will be flexible and allow students to select their own path and work at their own pace), outline the school’s administrative structure (Joe, a colleague and good friend of mine who has a current PA principal’s certificate, will run my school), write the staffing plan (a team of five core subject teachers, one of which will be dually certified in special education and another in physical education, will be the instructors), write a statement of facilities needs (we will need laptops, wireless internet, and a full time I.T. person to set-up and maintain the school’s website), and outline a rough budget (CCC will need approximately $1 million in annual funds to effectively educate its eventual student body of 120 students).

Phase two of opening a charter involves the application process—drafting, presenting, and getting the charter approved.  A strong charter application includes things like a statement of why the school is needed, a description of the education program to be used, learning objectives for students, methods for student assessment, a financial plan and a 3-5 year budget projection, etc.  I plan on talking to Dwight Evans about how to bully the Philadelphia School Reform Commission into accepting my charter application, and how to drive out competitors like a “bulldog on a bone.” 

Phase three is pre-operations, which includes recruiting staff and students, developing a formal operating agreement with the sponsoring district, and most importantly, securing funding.  CCC plans on securing $1 million in annual funds from the Philadelphia School District.  Likewise, CCC also plans on receiving an additional $250,000 for start-up costs from the PSD and the city’s taxpayers for the first year only.  In the 2010-11 school year, the PSD spent $310 million on its 74 charter schools (which comes to $4.1 million per school), so $1.25 million is really just a drop in the bucket.       

Finally, we get to phase four—opening the charter school doors.  Because CCC is a cybercharter, there are no actual doors to be opened.  All learning takes place on computers in cyberspace from each student’s home, so there are no brick-and-mortar buildings to maintain or pay for; there is no rent, utilities, or upkeep of any kind.  Teachers also do their teaching, using special state of the art software programs, from the comfort of their own homes as well.       

CCC students will take the PSSA tests to measure their academic gains.  Even if students crap-out and fail the state tests, it doesn’t matter.  It’s common knowledge that cybercharters in Pennsylvania are the pits.  The report by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes shows that cybercharters are performing far worse than traditional neighborhood public schools.  As Elmer Smith noted in his June 21st Daily News column, “In reading and math, cybercharters performed below average in comparison with district schools at every grade level tested. That was without exception.”

But this minor blemish doesn’t matter.  Progressives will still love CCC because the school is right on board with the three biggest educational trends of the 21st century: learning is “student-centered” without all that useless drilling from teachers; the curriculum allows children to select their own instructional paths and work at their own pace; and CCC uses state of the art technology.    

So let me repeat my plan: I’m going to open a cybercharter in Philadelphia and make a million dollars.  Anybody want in?