Expand charters to help those in closing schools

Posted: February 28, 2013

By Naomi Booker and Laurada Byers

In light of the concerns raised by the announcement of school closings in the city, our colleagues at Philadelphia Charters for Excellence (PCE) want School District officials and families to know that we are here, standing by to welcome more students into our schools.

The closings are inevitable for a district that must manage within the framework of a harsh fiscal reality. Given this scenario, the good news is that not only are charters educating children at a fraction of the cost, but they in turn are able to channel more money to children remaining at district schools.

Philadelphia taxpayers pay substantially less money per student to educate a child in a charter school than in one of our traditional public schools. According to the district's annual financial report for 2011, we conservatively estimate that, on average, the district spent $16,049 per student. Each student who left to attend a charter school took only $10,170, leaving $5,879 with the district.

Still, many people blame charters for the school closings. Critics say that charters are "draining resources" from district schools or that the money is going to for-profit companies. They want a moratorium on charter growth. What some do not realize is that charters are public schools voluntarily chosen by parents for their children, and almost all in Philadelphia are run by nonprofit entities focused on educating urban youths.

To blame charters for the district's situation is to blame families who have chosen to pull their children from failing or violent schools. In essence, it is parents who want the best for their children who are closing bad schools, not the district.

More than 50,000 students attend charter schools in Philadelphia. Parents understand the real hope offered by quality charter schools and see that graduating from a charter is also proving to be a better path to college. A child attending a charter school in Philadelphia is 92 percent more likely to be accepted by a college than if he or she attended a traditional neighborhood school.

In the neighborhoods that will be affected by school closings, many lucky students have already switched to safer charters or private schools; some tested into magnet schools. But too many unlucky ones have dropped out of failing schools. That's unacceptable. Families should applaud when a failed school closes and demand higher-quality schools.

In fact, they already are. Philadelphia charters have more than 40,000 students on waiting lists. It is tragic that only a very small percentage of families ultimately "win" a seat. It is especially disheartening to turn away thousands of children and families seeking a quality education.

We hope the School Reform Commission will let our quality charter schools grow to accommodate some of the children who will be affected by the school closings. Not only will these students come to safe, effective schools, but the district's dollars will be divided among fewer students, so that those still in traditional public schools will have more resources and opportunities to improve.

Our wish is for the community not only to support the strategic plan of Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., but also to demand the expansion of the charter school system, the system composed of the families who are the face of public education in the City of Brotherly Love.

Naomi Booker is president of Philadelphia Charters for Excellence and CEO of Global Leadership Academy Charter School ( drbooker@glacharter.org). Laurada Byers is vice president of Philadelphia Charters for Excellence and founder of the Russell Byers Charter School ( lbyers@byerschool.org).

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