The Philadelphia 2015 mayor's race is starting to remind me of Yogi Berra's famous observation about the left field shadows in the old (i.e., real) Yankee Stadium, that "it gets late early out there." No doubt it's technically early -- the filing deadline for candidates won't come for a month, and maybe somebody else wonderful will jump in (although the fact that no name even occurs to me is telling.) And yet it feels late out there -- that the candidates, the issues, and maybe the fate of the city's zeitgeist for the rest of the 2010s is locked in.
There's a lot this election could be about -- Philadelphia's rate of deep poverty, said to be highest in the land, how to move policing out of the stop-and-frisk era, or how to bring make the city's comeback touch all neighborhoods and not just the ones with hipster coffee hangouts. But, no, they -- not me or you, but they -- decided that the race is going to be about charter schools.
Last week, we were talking here about how "independent expenditures" -- from political action committees (PACs) or even so-called "dark money," groups that can keep the identity of their large donors secret -- might swamp the relatively paltry sums that the actual candidates are raising and spending. In particular, at least two newish PACs were raising noteworthy amounts from known backers of a major expansion of charter schools -- schools that receive public funds but operate independently. Both of the PACs have indicated support in the mayor's race for state Sen. Anthony Williams, a staunch supporter of charters.
It turns out that the mayor's race is only part of the big push. Last year, desperate to get state lawmakers to sign off on a higher cigarette tax in Philly to keep public schools from imploding, the School Reform Commission agreed to take applications from new charter schools -- something they'd put on hold because charters are such a financial drain. Right as I was hitting the "send" button on my piece about the mayoral PACs, the Philadelphia School Partnership -- a well-funded group advocating what it calls "school choice" -- ratcheted up the pressure by offering what it described as a substantial amount if money -- on the order of $25 million over three years -- if new charters are approved, supposedly to ease the transition.
It's an offer they can't refuse, right? This is a district that every year begs for money, in City Council, Harrisburg, and everywhere in between, to close its yawning budget gaps. The problem is that this particular offer from the PSP makes as much sense as that email in your in-box from the recently deposed Nigerian defense minster.
Except it's in reverse -- the PSP is offering taxpayers to sign over the token cashier's check, not asking you to give them one. And in the end, they're not promising a pot of gold, but a mountain of debt that would eventually crush the school district. The stampede to charters that the partnership wants to trigger with this paltry down payment could ultimately destroy what's left of truly public education in Philadelphia.
First of all, the money would be only a fraction of what the district loses when a student -- and the tax dollars that support his enrollment -- moves to a charter school. That's because the public schools have a lot of what the experts call "stranded costs" -- what it costs to heat and maintain a neighborhood school, for example -- that must be spent, even as they're paying a charter to educate a kid who's no longer there. The bottom line: The charter explosion of roughly 15,000 students that PSP wants to fund could cost as much as $500 million, or 20 times more than what the group is offering. This for schools that are already struggle to offer kids library books, a nurse, or a guidance counselor.
It's critical that the SRC says "no" to the money and also "no" to any new charters -- unless it wants to sign its own death warrant.
The amazing part is that some pols get it. It was pleasantly surprising to see the newest entrant in the race, former council member Jim Kenney, oppose this Trojan horse -- issuing a statement that really cut to the heart of the matter. He noted that this cash comes from "unnamed millionaires" and he added: "These millionaires are far more concerned with the financial stake they have to gain from public dollars flowing into pro-voucher programs and privately run charters than they are with 'school choice.'"
On Monday, another outspoken opponent of unfettered charter growth, longtime activist Helen Gym, will announce her candidacy for an at-large City Council seat, with one Democrat slot now wide open because of Kenney's resignation. So there is some good news about the election here: Voters will have a choice when it comes to "school choice," the closest we will come to a referendum of whether there's still a place for traditional public schools.
The bad news is that this referendum will pit regular people saying the right things against rich anonymous people willing to spend millions to get their way. Never bet against the money.