BOWDON: What’s Good for the Goose

What Happens When District Schools Get Judged by the Same Standard as Charters?

Philadelphia parents have embraced charter schools big time, enrolling about a third of the city’s kids in these public schools run by private groups. Yet despite so many families voting with their feet, opposition to the charter sector has suddenly become a lot bolder.

How did it become so fashionable to oppose such popular schools? Back in 2014, the Pennsylvania state auditor famously declared charter oversight statewide to be “a mess,” and earlier this year, a report from the group Public Citizens for Children and Youth woefully concluded that “most charter schools are not making the grade,” based on something called the Pennsylvania School Performance Profile (SPP). Less than a quarter or only 24% of the state’s charter schools scored an SPP score of 70 or above, we were told, which was the threshold to be considered a “good school.” A still anemic, but much better 54% of the traditional public schools made that mark. Sounds like pretty chilling news for the charters, doesn’t it?

The School District of Philadelphia has its own metric for judging the quality of charter schools, the Charter School Performance Framework, first released in 2014, then updated in 2018. It gives points for student proficiency, growth, attendance, and, in the case of high schools, post-secondary readiness. (The district released a Frequently Asked Questions document to offer copious detail.)

This quickly “got real” earlier this year when the district said a Framework score below “45” does not meet its academic criteria. Using the district’s 2017 reviews of schools called ACE reports as a guide for what the updated Framework numbers might reveal, the new “cut score” implied that 22% of Philadelphia’s charter schools were in danger of non-renewal. Many thousands of families have their children enrolled in those schools. (We use the word “implied” because it’s still unclear how the 2018 revisions to the Framework index might affect the individual scores.)

And yet there were other shoes still left to drop. On March 22, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission (SRC) voted that charters must get any future curriculum changes approved. The commission also set new limits on charter enrollment. Taken together, these fundamental changes by the SRC in the waning days of its existence (the SRC is about to be replaced by a school board), was quite a departure from the thumbs up or thumbs down charter renewal decision every five years that had been the tradition. It shifted the city government’s role in charter schools from oversight to direct management, and it led to a lawsuit from a group called Excellent Schools PA.

The official story was that the city needed to manage charter schools more directly in the name of “accountability.” But queue the popcorn and peanuts to find the real story: The education establishment Empire was Striking Back.

First, for the statewide figures, the Public Citizens for Children and Youth report used the oldest trick in the charter-bashing book: They compared charters which mostly serve inner city, low-income students not to the district schools in the same cities, serving the same populations — but to statewide averages which intermix data from upper middle class and wealthy suburbs. Slick, eh? Comparing schools with widely dissimilar demographics may sound a tad too obvious of a tactic once you know that’s what’s happening, like how a magician might not seem very talented once you know the trick. But alas, the comparison-to-different-demographics fast one often works beautifully to the untrained eye as effective anti-charter sophistry.

And remember that Philadelphia Framework score which makes some 22% of the charters seem dysfunctional? Well you can call it “Hoisting Them on their Own Petard,” or “What’s Good for the Goose,” but Excellent Schools PA, the group behind the aforementioned lawsuit, applied the same metrics to the traditional public schools. How do you think the traditional public schools did?

Excellent Schools PA calculations show 53% of the district schools fail to meet the cut score of “45,” more than double the 22% failure rate of charters. Separately Mastery Charter school CEO Scott Gordon told Philly.com that they too believed the district schools’ failure rate would indeed be higher if they were to be judged by the same standards as the charters.

Will it be easy for charter opponents to dismiss such calculations from a pro-charter groups as biased? Of course. In Excellent Schools PA’s defense, at least they present the school-by-school details for the world to peruse and critique. The larger question, however, is why the School District of Philadelphia would create a literal double standard for schools, as if the children in traditional public schools aren’t worthy of the same level of education as those in charters. Why is it even called a “Charter School Performance Framework,” when it could simply be an Every School Performance Framework?

Rarely mentioned in these kinds of analyses, of course, is the fact that charter schools in Philadelphia only receive an average of $11,215 per student,  or about 78 cents on the dollar compared to the $14,406 per student received by traditional public schools, (2015-16 data, supplied by the Keystone Alliance for Public Charter Schools). When it’s time to collectively bargain or lobby Harrisburg, establishment defenders will swear on bended knee how every penny counts when it comes to delivering better educations to kids. Turn the conversation to charter vs. district performance, however, and they’ll suddenly sound more like “Funding difference? What funding difference? How on earth is difference in spending per student pertinent in this discussion?”

The bottom line is that it’s wrong to judge schools by their category of governance. We can only hope that the upcoming Philadelphia school board will evaluate all schools, whether district or charter, in a way that doesn’t reflect the biases we’ve already seen in 2018.

Bob Bowdon

Bob Bowdon has been a television producer, reporter, political commentator, documentary filmmaker and satirist. He is currently the Executive Director of Choice Media, an education news service, website and smartphone app.
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