PCPCS testifies before Philadelphia City Council

March 27, 2012

PCPCS President, Larry Jones, testifies before Philadelphia City Council

On Tuesday March 27th, PCPCS Board President Lawrence Jones testified before the Philadelphia City Council Education Committee on behalf of Charter Schools and the ever expanding role they play in revolutionizing public education in Philadelphia. Specifically Mr. Jones testified about the historical friction between charters and the District that may be addressed through open discussions such as this hearing and the Philadelphia Compact.

Choice works. New ideas and cooperation in public education works. Putting students first works. When education is foremost and solely about the children, everyone wins.

PCPCS President, Lawrence Jones

The following is the full written testimony submitted to the Philadelphia City Council on behalf of PCPCS:

Written testimony provided by
Lawrence F. Jones, Jr.
President, Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools
To the Philadelphia City  Council Committee on Education

March 27, 2012

Chairwoman Blackwell, Vice Chair Reynolds Brown, and Members of the Philadelphia City Council Education Committee, thank you for the opportunity to present my testimony before you today. My name is Lawrence F. Jones, Jr, and I am testifying as the President of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, the state association of charter schools that promotes and advocates for choice, quality, and accountability in public education. I am also the CEO and founding member of the Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School, a public charter school serving 435 students in grades 5 to 8 in Southwest Philadelphia. As I begin my testimony, I would like to say that my colleagues in the charter community and I are encouraged that this Committee is holding these hearings today. Councilwoman Blackwell, whom many of us have known for years, has been a true supporter and advocate for providing our children a system of public education that works and it is my hope today to provide an overview and context to the charter option within that system of public education.

The legislation permitting the creation of charter schools was enacted in 1997 as Act 22. Since then, charters have grown to include 164 charter schools statewide, serving close to 100,000 students with an additional 40,000 waiting in line to get in. And all of those numbers are increasing at about 10 percent per year. Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis is fond of saying that if charters were a single district, they would be second only to Philadelphia as the largest school district in the state, and he’s right.

The epicenter of the charter movement in Pennsylvania is Philadelphia. More than half of all the charter schools in the state are located within the City, one in every four students in the District is in a charter school, and 25,000 of the 40,000 students on charter school waiting lists in the state are in Philadelphia. This city has the fourth highest percentage of students in charter schools among all the major urban areas in the nation.

But Philadelphia is the charter epicenter not only because of the numbers. Philadelphia has been home to both the very best of what charters aspire to be and also some of the worst abuses of the charter ideal. As with all other models of public education, when they are run well they bring hope and opportunity. When run poorly, our children’s education and opportunities are severely compromised.

We believe that good schools should be honored and emulated, schools striving to get better should be supported, and those unwilling or unable to improve should be closed whether they are traditional or charter public schools. But proving ourselves has been an uphill battle in Philadelphia – even for the most outstanding charter schools.

Charters were conceived as entities that would be held to the same academic performance standards as traditional public schools but would be freed from some of the bureaucratic mandates shackling the public schools. This would allow the flexibility to explore innovative educational methods and then share best practices with all public educators. Instead, charters have largely been viewed as competition, accused of draining money from the District. Discussions between traditional and charter educators seldom take place and the sharing of best practices simply does not exist.

In 2007 the District placed a moratorium on the creation of new charter schools in Philadelphia and that moratorium remains in place today. Let me provide two points of background that are important to this discussion – one as to how charters are paid and the other as to why students wind up in charter schools. By law, charter schools are paid based on a formula in the Department of Education Form 363. On that Form, the home school district lists its total expenses for the previous school year, divides by the number of students in the district and then subtracts up to 21 deductions. The remainder is to be sent to the charter school for each child enrolled in the charter school and the district retains the rest. On average in Pennsylvania, charters receive 70 percent of the average cost to educate the student and the school district retains 30 percent. According to the most recent PDE 363 for the School District of Philadelphia, the average cost to educate a non-special education student is $16,228 and charter schools receive $8,608, or 53 percent.

The point is that good charter schools are nothing more than a different model for public education that is already delivering effective education to our children in Philadelphia for 47 percent less to the taxpayer. Second, charters are growing in popularity for the simple reason that parents want, but more accurately, NEED them. Parents understand that education is the key to a better future and they are desperate to find the environment, discipline, and opportunity that will allow their children to earn that key. By far, the primary reasons parents move their children to charters, not only in Philadelphia but nationwide, are related to environmental issues – bullying, violence, drugs, and the personal safety of their children. Good charters provide what every educator knows is essential – a safe environment, discipline, small classes, and individual attention.

Charters were created as a source for educational innovation but parents are seeing them as a lifeline for their children. Although the history between the District and charters has been contentious, I have hope for greater collaborative efforts in the form of increasingly open discussions such as today’s forum and the Philadelphia Compact – which the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools supports, and upon which I sit as a representative of the charter community.

The purpose of the Compact is to make recommendations to the School Reform Commission that will transform 50,000 children out of under-performing seats and into high-performing seats of
any type – traditional public, Renaissance, or charter. From my perspective, two elements of the Compact are critical – developing an equitable, comprehensive, and consistent methodology against which school performance can be assessed and establishing a strong independent authorizer for charter schools. The first provides the foundation upon which accurate differentiations can be made and improvement plans established. The second is the only way to assure consistently strong charters.

I will not go into any detail on the Compact since others have, and will, be testifying on the subject. But I do want to make one observation. There are many serious and complicated issues that are being discussed in the Compact Committee, and we are not in agreement on all of them. But if we can get through those challenges and live up to the aspirations of the Compact, then there will be a true paradigm shift in public education in this City that few observers in this nation think is possible in Philadelphia. We are aware that some charters do not support the Compact but, as a Coalition that is dedicated to choice, quality, and accountability in public education, we are absolutely committed to actions we sincerely believe are in the best interests of the children of Philadelphia, even if those actions are detrimental to the short term interests of some charter schools.

It is time for all of us to set aside our entrenched self-interests and place the best interests of our children at the apex of our priorities. Until we do, the promise of the Compact will never become reality and our children will continue to fail because we have failed. One indication of a changing environment was a few weeks ago, when the District conducted a series of discussion groups seeking input on the qualities and expectations for the new superintendent. I participated in one of those sessions and, at the very beginning, the facilitator asked two questions. The first was “What single quality will be the most important for the successful candidate to possess?”

My answer was “political courage” – the ability and guts to stand up for the ideals and the children under the relentless pressure to do either nothing or something which is more expedient, less controversial, or in the veiled best interests of someone other than the children. The second question was “What is the greatest threat to the success of the new superintendent?” My answer was “same old, same old” – the possibility, maybe probability, that we drag ourselves thorough all of this pain and turmoil and nothing really changes.6

We all sit at an historic moment for the City of Philadelphia and what we do now will be a message to future generations as to whether or not we had the courage to do what was right, or whether we continued to sacrifice the future of our children on the altar of our own self interests. As a CEO of a charter school located in one of Philadelphia’s busiest police precincts, I can tell you that public school choice works in that neighborhood. Our school continues to make Adequate Yearly Progress and many students with some of the most challenging backgrounds and home environments imaginable graduate 8th grade not only eager to earn their high school diplomas, but to continue onto college. These students will not fall victim to this city’s dropout crisis. There are pockets of similar successes in both traditional and charter schools throughout Philadelphia, but it is not yet the norm.

Choice works. New ideas and cooperation in public education works. Putting students first works. When education is foremost and solely about the children, everyone wins. Thank you again for the opportunity to present this testimony on behalf of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools. I will be glad to answer any questions from the Committee.

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