In Which the Commonwealth Foundation Proves They’re Functionally Illiterate



By Colleen Kennedy

Originally published on The P.H.L.

Apparently the Commonwealth Foundation’s chief policy advisors only bother to read the first few pages of a report that isn’t that long, before sharing their incredible wisdom with the world.

Here’s James Paul’s intellectually deep take, as posted on CF’s “policy blog”, you know, where things get a little bit more wonky than other areas of their site. It’s called “Are Charter Schools Too Popular?”


Of the 40 applications for new charter schools in Philadelphia, surely a few should not be approved by the School Reform Commission (SRC). Each individual applicant has its own strengths, weaknesses, and visions for expanding educational opportunity. It seems reasonable that some schools receive a green-light while others are turned away.

According to a report from Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY), however, all 40 charter applicants should be flatly rejected. Why? Because they will be too popular and attract too many students.

[via PCCY, citation made by The P.H.L.] The charter slots requested could grow total charter enrollment to 104,642 students or approximately 51 percent of the District’s total enrollment. Nationally, Philadelphia ranks 3rdhighest for percentage of students who are enrolled in charter schools, trailing only New Orleans and Detroit.

Clearly there is a reason why so many students are fleeing the traditional schooling model in Philadelphia. Yet defenders of the education status-quo want to force these families to remain trapped in an unsatisfactory system.

PCCY also bemoans that only 40 percent of the schools currently operated by applicants for new charters exceeded a score 70 on the 2013 Department of Education State Performance Profile (SPP). The report fails to mention that the 2013 average district SPP score was 57.5. This means that roughly 80 percent of the schools currently operated by new charter applicants exceed the district’s average SPP score.

The SRC is tasked with selecting the best applicants in a city desperate for more choice and better options. Rather than following PCCY’s lead and stubbornly lumping all charter schools into the same group, each applicant should be evaluated on its own merit.

Okay, that was painful.

I’ll review a few major points now. I think we could go on all day, but I’ll save that for another time.

(1) The entire premise of this press release is sensationally contradictory to everything that school choice advocates ever allege to believe. They advocate for the individual student’s right to a quality education, wherever that may be. In two ways, this piece contradicts that “moral value”.

  • (A) The PCCY report indicates that many of these charter schools are not providing the quality education they advertise on the taxpayer dime, and
  • (B) CF finally reveals what we’ve all known about the school choice movement, that it isn’t about students first, it’s actually about the students they like first.

What does this mean? Well, for starters, schools like I-Lead, a charter school operated in Reading, PA, can set up application procedures that discriminate students as clearly as the sky is blue. They can set up obstacle after obstacle to make sure that they get the cream of the crop, and meanwhile, the students left behind don’t have a choice, as enrollment fills up, just in the way that a rigged lottery system weighs down certain ping pong balls while sucking up the predestined ones.

(2) As the PCCY report indicates, there is no solid data even collected by Pennsylvania officials or the City of Philadelphia to track the retainment of students within a school. So maybe one could say that one of many contributing factors to the proliferation of charter schools has been that students have desired to go to them. Have they stayed? Do traditional public schools get left to pick up after the academic delays caused by the substandard educational quality of these institutions? That governmental entities do not collect basic data such as this, when it would indicate whether they’ve gained a return on their investment in alternative education options for the public, is a probable indication that most involved in this decision-making process care less about that and more about pleasing their donors.

(3) If the Commonwealth Foundation’s moral value in this discussion was truly about providing the solid education needed for economic prosperity in adulthood, they’d advocate for its funding, not make inaccurate generalizations about statistical data to fit their agenda.

Here are a few policy initiatives in which CF should flip their position, so as to advocate for all students:

Stop fighting the taxation of Marcellus Shale for education funding. Every accurate report out there shows that we’ve lost many millions of dollars in revenue unnecessarily, as a tax increase would have absolutely no impact on the desire to tap into this Pennsylvania resource.

Stop linking urgent discussions about equitable public education funding with pension negotiations. It isn’t the fault of students or parents that pension fund payments were not made. It was the fault of those who gave out tax breaks to the rich and failed to close corporate tax loopholes.

Stop pretending you aren’t the special interest. Yes, public sector unions spent a ton of money on Pennsylvania races. Guess what? Republicans who voted against the interests of these unions control both sides of our bicameral state legislature. They’ll be free to pass as many laws as they want to talk about “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, legalize guns in malls, or whatever else they come up with this cycle. And thanks to the electoral outcomes that the unions seemed to impact very little, your precious shale drillers seem to be safe from the Big Bad Wolf.

A conservative approach to any burgeoning business would be to maximize profits within one location before branching out. According to James Paul’s logic, if it’s an education, a constitutionally mandated right to every Pennsylvania child, that business ethics principle should be abandoned. Charter schools that have yet to make adequate yearly progress within the locations they already have should be provided with even more resources, despite a lack of any differentiation in curriculum or strategy that would provide better results in new schools.

And yes, James Paul states the complete obvious, that many Philadelphia traditional public schools are not providing the education that students deserve, but they’re functioning on hundred-dollar budgets, with mold-encrusted walls, violent incidences, shortages of key staff like nurses, librarians, social workers, etc. and no real appeasement of the real challenges of poverty facing students and their families.

The trajectory that CF advocates for, the one that York City is now set to undergo and which has only ever been attempted in New Orleans of all places, after the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, does what the more malicious in power want. It segregates our schools, without actually addressing the educational quality discrepancies that create an economic caste system for ELL students, poor students, young people of color, and students with many disabilities to overcome.

Thanks James, for your “Mean Girls”-esque take on this issue, that charter schools must be “too popular”. It really dignifies the children who seriously need much better from us all than what we’ve been able to provide.

Colleen Kennedy is the creator and editor of The P.H.L., a site founded to help fill the need for more long-form policy analysis in the Philadelphia region. Above all, Colleen cares about equality of opportunity and transparency of government. Contribute to The P.H.L. to keep analysis like this going.
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