Deena Swann always had questions, but never raised her hand. She never quite got what the teachers at her North Philly elementary school were saying. And with all the fights and other classroom chaos, asking for extra help didn’t seem like an option.
The disconnect showed in her test results. She ranked near the bottom — the third percentile — in math and did little better in reading. The system was failing Deena. Thankfully, she found her lifeline in a public charter school that catapulted her to the 91st percentile. She has since earned her associate’s degree and works as a preschool director.
Like many kids who never escape their failing school, Deena’s story, reported by WHYY, may have been drastically different. Educational excellence — or negligence — has a ripple effect.
Over 140,000 Pennsylvania students attend charter schools, with half of those students residing in Philadelphia. Yet Gov. Tom Wolf recently proposed measures that would rob many students like Deena of this opportunity. Among other changes, Wolf wants to cut funding for charter schools, cap charter enrollment, and prevent any new cyber charter schools from opening.
If you didn’t know anything else about Pennsylvania’s education system, you’d assume Wolf’s actions were based on some major flaw or scandal related to our charter schools. That’s simply not the case.
Tens of thousands of students sit on waiting lists for charter schools and other forms of educational choice, like tax-credit scholarships.
Charters are outperforming district schools by a huge margin, especially in Philadelphia, where a handful of available charter seats will receive thousands of applications through the city’s charter lottery.
Based on performance alone, there is no reason to quarantine charters and treat their students, parents, and teachers like second-class citizens.
Tens of thousands of students sit on waiting lists for charter schools and other forms of educational choice, like tax-credit scholarships. Yet, despite the massive popularity of parental choice, it faces powerful enemies.
The governor infamously vetoed a tax-credit scholarship expansion a couple months ago that would have provided 50,000 private school scholarships to low-income students. He said rescuing these students from failing schools “distracts from what we ought to be focusing on, which is educating every child through our public school system.” Wolf attended an exclusive private school.
Wolf’s complaints of costs and accountability for school choice options are two-faced. Pennsylvania school district spending is the ninth-highest per student in the country. More money hasn’t fixed broken districts like Harrisburg, Penn Hills, or Philadelphia. Meanwhile, the charter school educates students for 20 percent less than school districts on average.
Private school tuition varies, but Pennsylvania’s tax-credit scholarship program offers access to low- and mid-income families for about a tenth the cost of district schools. They’re also fully funded by private donations in exchange for a tax credit.
That’s only “too expensive” if you don’t mind overriding parents’ choices to force everyone into a conventional public school. Let’s not forget that private schools and charters are accountable to parents, who can simply pull their kids out if education quality is poor. That’s instant accountability.
If our political leaders were focused on students, they would welcome schools of choice — given their academic success. Only 35 percent of Philadelphia third-graders in district schools learn to read, while charter students boast a 50 percent literacy rate. Even in Renaissance Charters, former district schools that have recently been converted into charters through the Turnaround program, there is a 13-point advantage over district-run Turnaround schools.
Deena’s story isn’t an anomaly: Students flourish in charter schools. But Wolf and his allies focus on funding systems, not students. Why?
School districts collect campaign contributions for teachers’ union PACs, which have given Wolf over $4 million since 2013. His total contributions from unions are the second-largest of all time for any state candidate in the nation.
Union leaders receive the revenue for their substantial salaries from the dues of district teachers, not charter or private school teachers. That’s why union leaders want all students back in district schools.
Thankfully, politicians and union leaders won’t have the last say. School choice programs like charter schools and tax-credit scholarships are massively popular among Philadelphia families. They’re not going away. Families with students like Deena may be under attack for their educational choices, but they’re not focused on politics — they’re focused on the success of their children.
Charles Mitchell is president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank. The Commonwealth Foundation is a sponsor of Broad and Liberty.