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Where 'Citizen Sam' Katz stands on charters

The possible independent candidate for mayor offers his stance on a hot button issue

Late last week, I noted one of the most interesting developments in a not-as-interesting-as-Philadelphia-deserves mayor's race: The possible entry of Sam Katz, the former GOP candidate, into the 2015 election as an independent on the fall ballot. Katz -- whose political evolution seems a tacit acknowledgment that it's impossible to get elected in Philadelphia as a Republican these days -- upped the ante by launching a website called "Citizen Sam" and posting a fairly bold and progressive plan for education funding.

I also noted the elephant in the room (that's not a Republican joke) which is: What position will Katz take on the hot-button issue of the role of charter schools in city education. The question of whether these publicly funded but independently run schools are a) destroying the city's conventional public schools by sapping their students and their funds or b) giving kids in failing schools and their parents a real choice, is just one of dozens of questions before the 2015 candidates and the voters. Arguably, the role of charters isn't even the No. 1 education issue -- the broader funding issue comes first.

But politics has raised the charters question to the top of the heap. State Sen. Tony Williams, a perceived front runner, is the most outspoken "school choice" advocate and has the backing of three wealthy Montgomery County investment executives who donated more than $6 million to his failed bid for governor in 2010 and have launched an independent committee to back Williams for mayor. Today, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers endorsed former council member Jim Kenney, who's criticized the senator's stance. Most pundits believe Katz wants to run if Williams is the Democratic nominee. In his earlier campaigns, Katz backed charters as well as school vouchers. Is his position that much different from Williams?

Now you can judge for yourself. Katz has sent me a lengthy response to last week's post. Here are the relevant excerpts, beginning with a response to the comment he made during his 1999 campaign when he voiced support for charter schools and for vouchers:

As you observed, this was a position I took 16 years ago.  "Trying everything" seemed prudent at a moment when nothing was working that well.

For me, vouchers are off the table.  They are a distraction.  Moreover, they will clearly divert resources and attention away from public schools at a moment of critical need for both.

I want schools to be held to uniform standards of performance accountability.  I want our education decisions to be based on evidence that demonstrates what is being done is working or at least showing the capacity to work.  Evidence based educational decisions will serve families and their children best in the long run.

The parents of 65,000 students have chosen Charter Schools.  Are they wrong to want something better for their children?  I don't think so.  But the question is how are these schools performing.  The evidence that there is significant improvement in measurable achievement is pretty thin.  But the evidence that our public schools are improving in these metrics is equally thin.  There are great public schools and there are great charter schools.  More important is that we have established an option for parents and they get to exercise it.

It seems to me the common denominator in both instances (i.e. good publics and good charters) includes a formula of strong school leadership, creative and well supported teachers (teaching skills and critical thinking and not to a test), engaged parents, a strong sense of school community, and lots of feedback and interaction among stakeholders.

Across the nation, barely 2% of students attend Charter Schools.  In Philadelphia, the number is closer to 30%.  That is a powerful statement from Philadelphia's families.

I wonder if we would even be having a debate that pits one kind of public education, traditional, versus another kind, charter, if we had adequate resources to provide public education?  I wonder whether our schools, if properly resourced and with significant evidence based changes in educational approach, would not find a way to inspire parents back to more of the traditional school classrooms?

In principle, reject (sic) the basis of the current debate and therefore your question.

His note concludes:

When schools fail after remedial intervention, whether they are public or charter, we need to act.  Our actions should be consistent and transparent.  But as a matter of policy, we shouldn't ignore either situation because of politics.

My proposal is intended to move the conversation away from your question, which pits public schools against charter schools, towards one that recognizes that we have much greater capacity to do more financially within our current local financial structure.  The open question is are we willing.

Interesting points. Like Bill O'Reilly's show, it's my blog so I get the last word. I'd note that parents deciding to send their kids to charters isn't a zero sum game; in Philadelphia, parents and kids do what they have to do...because of a serious of irresponsible decisions by alleged grown-ups in Harrisburg, 440 North Broad Street and City Hall. The real issue, or course, is that Pennsylvania is the worst state for funding equity between rich and poor districts (like Philadelphia) in the entire nation, which is a disgrace. If the next mayor -- Katz, Williams, Kenney, or one of the others -- can play a role in fixing that, the choice of whether to attend a charter or a traditional public school won't be so politically fraught.