In the last 20 years, the Pennsylvania legislature has taken control of the School District and the Parking Authority; it has thwarted efforts of local officials to lessen gun violence and to regulate tobacco sales. As an Inquirer editorial decrying the state’s recent efforts to undermine Philadelphia home rule by limiting the type of cases District Attorney Larry Krasner can prosecute asked: “What’s the point of our local elections?”
At the end of the legislature’s last session, a last–minute amendment to the School Code was introduced by the Republican leadership. It in effect allows a school in the Belmont Charter network to secede from the School District of Philadelphia. The Public School Notebook reported that House Bill 1615 “allows for the creation of Innovation Schools, using specific language that appears to single out Belmont Charter School.”
The list of qualifications for placement in this special category is very specific, applying only to schools in a federal "promise zone.” There is only one such zone in the state — in West Philadelphia. The only charter school in that zone is Belmont. The move allows the school to seek waivers from federal and state requirements.
This latest stealth move by the state legislature means that the district would be required to fund schools over which it has virtually no oversight. Some fear that it would open the door for other charter operators, who have consistently pushed back against district oversight.
There were no hearings on the amendment, as it was inserted into the bill just two days before the House voted to pass. That time frame denied the Board of Education, the body that governs the School District of Philadelphia, the opportunity to discuss the language. There had been no public push for legislation to create a new category of schools. In fact, charter schools have long sold themselves as innovative alternatives to public schools even as many followed a strict “no-excuses," test-prep curriculum. Was this about the need for a special innovative designation — or a way for one charter operator to escape accountability for its academic standards through a custom-made loophole?
This unprecedented move to usurp the power of the Board of Education to oversee all of the district’s schools represents the latest attack by Harrisburg on the city’s sovereignty. Since there were no hearings on the amendment, the question of whose interests are being served was not adequately addressed. Belmont Charter Network CEO Jennifer Faustman confirmed to WHYY that her school lobbied for this law. As a result, it got the language it wanted inserted at the eleventh hour with no notice to or consultation with members of the community it claims to serve.
The people of Philadelphia won the fight to bring back local control after the 17-year reign of the state-appointed School Reform Commission. Mayor Jim Kenney chose a nine-member Board of Education to make decisions in the best interest of the city’s schoolchildren and their families. In its first year, the board began to reverse some of the policies and practices carried out under state control, including ones that encouraged charter expansion with little accountability. The board took a decisive step in February by rejecting three clearly inadequate new charter applications.
Now the board finds itself in the position of having to stop Harrisburg from eroding its authority in back-door deals that circumvent the democratic process.
Community members, parents, students, and educators must sign up to present their testimony in public meetings. We know that we must organize and fight for reforms that benefit all of the city’s schoolchildren. It is often a slow process, but one that allows time for serious consideration of public policy. Harrisburg politicians should not be allowed to subvert this process for any special interest.
Lisa Haver is a retired Philadelphia teacher and co-founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools. http://appsphilly.net