In 13 short years, the charter school movement in Philadelphia has grown from nothing to a network with 67 schools and more than 36,000 students, financed by $400 million in taxpayer dollars.
Counted together, they would be the second largest school district in Pennsylvania.
I'll just say out of the box that I am not a fan of charter schools. When we were exploring our options outside of private schools, we checked into a number of the charter schools. I was a bit shocked at what I found.
**Let me just say, upfront, that this is not meant to imply that all charter schools are bad. I know they are not. This is just a recitation of my experiences with charter schools in Philadelphia.**
I guess it's important for me to point out that I was never enthusiastic about the prospect of sending my children to a charter school in Philadelphia. I have regarded them with a mixture of mistrust and skepticism since before my oldest daughter entered school. I got it honest.
As part of my job, I often get phone calls from people looking for information. A few years ago, I got one of those phone calls. It was the principal of one of the "best regarded" of the new charter schools and she was a little desperate. Her school, it seemed, had some issues. They weren't the kind of issues that were making the news (and no illegal activity was involved) but they were serious. Basically, the school was imploding. Parents were unhappy, teachers were unhappy. She was reaching out for help. I couldn't help her but I gave her some names of folks who might be able to point her in the right direction. I hung up the phone and thought about that call. And it frightened me a little. Where was the support for charter schools if I'm the one getting these calls?
A year or so later, when driving my daughter to her private school, we passed by a charter school in one of on the more downtrodden areas of Philadelphia. While I thought I would see the positive results of charter schools in low-income communities (one of the publicly touted reasons for the existence of so many charter schools), what I saw was more alarming than what I've seen at any public high school: hoards of ill-behaved children descending on a school. The children and their parents had seemingly no regard for anyone else. They darted in and out of traffic and terrorized pedestrians. The parents parked their vehicles in the middle of the street. And on more than one occasion, we saw an increased police presence nearby. It was not encouraging.
That same year, a messy virtual fight broke out on a popular message board about a local charter school which was having problems. Those involved lobbed all kinds of accusations about the faculty, safety and facilities at the school. At least part of it was true: there were serious facilities issues related to safety.
I was surprised to learn, in the midst of all of this, that many of the teachers at charter schools were not certified. In some cases, parents did the hiring, which appeared to hinge more on whether the applicants agreed with the "mission" of the school than whether they were well-qualified.
Despite these experiences, I did not completely dismiss charter schools out of hand. Along with another friend (who ended up sending her children to private school), I investigated a few of the more highly touted charter schools. More often than not, I was completely unimpressed.
For starters, the "lottery" process at more than a couple of schools appears flawed. One charter school runs a lottery that is suspiciously guarded enough - and held at completely unreasonable hours - that one can't help but wonder about the real agenda. A few phone calls about their admissions process were never returned. And a friend whose children got into the lottery was disturbed to note that while the open house was overwhelmingly a mix of minorities and white children, she did not note one single minority who was admitted the same year as her children.
Another phone call about admissions lead to almost a "mini interview" over the phone about my family and my children. I was just calling for a brochure (it was never sent).
As a result of the uneasy feelings that I had about charter schools (and which many of my friends shared), I did not apply to a single charter school for my children. My options came down to our local public school or continuing at the private school where my oldest child was enrolled. My husband had zero interest in any of the charter schools for our children. And I wasn't willing to be a guinea pig in a system that appeared to have little in the way of accountability.
Since that time, there have been a number of public criticisms of many charter schools; others, admittedly, have gone on to be lauded. Specific concerns have focused on the lack of oversight, mismanagement of funds and a failure to make academic improvements. In many cases, the focus on the "mission" (translation: agenda) of the school has created an unwelcome, unhappy atmosphere for many in the community that some charter schools purport to serve. In others, money is being tossed around without any apparent supervision - at last count, there were at least 18 schools reportedly under federal investigation for potential mismanagement of funds (statistically, that's more than a quarter of existing charter schools in Philadelphia).
In the end, it appears that we are left with a mixed bag. Some charter schools are getting it right. Some charter schools are clearly not. But fixing those that aren't appears to be fraught with difficulties, including an unwillingness to ask tough questions (some of which were addressed in the Notebook piece linked above). I firmly believe that the failure to intervene in those schools that are making the wrong decisions - about admissions, agenda, faculty and finances - will continue to taint the reputations of all charter schools in Philadelphia.
I have a number of friends who send their children to charter schools and most of them seem happy with their choices (I have, for example, only heard terrific things about Independence Charter). And great for them. I am just hopeful that charter schools are creating environments for children to succeed. I just fear that many are more focused on creating environments for adults to succeed.