AS PAUL HARVEY says, there's the story - and then there's the rest of the story.
In a score of articles and commentaries since April 15 - at least four in the Daily News - local papers have made the terms "charter school" and "scandal" synonymous because of the highly questionable actions of two of the city's 60 charter operators.
In a nutshell, two charter operators, Philadelphia Academy's Brien Gardiner and the Laboratory Charter School's June Brown, ran good schools but also paid themselves astronomical salaries. Once their fees were made public, a media feeding frenzy ensued, along with the predictable calls for more regulation.
But as a longtime observer of Philadelphia charter schools, I have to ask the powers that be - what took you so long?
For at least four years, other Philadelphia charter operators have privately groused that Brown and Gardiner were treated with kid gloves. As Superintendent Paul Vallas' charter poster children, Brown and Gardiner escaped the press and administrative scrutiny that the city's other charters faced.
Everyone knew it, and many in the charter community resented it. But why did it happen? Why did Vallas protect Brown and Gardiner? And what does that say about how we should regulate charters?
For starters, contrary to the anti-charter rhetoric, charter schools are public schools: They can't impose religion, charge tuition or practice selective admissions. Yet, like private schools, they have the autonomy and flexibility to choose their curriculums, and to hire and even fire staff. Most important, charters are schools of choice. Charters put parents in the driver's seat because if they pull out their kids, the school shuts down.
And there's the rub. For all his many strengths, former school CEO Vallas was a control-oriented guy who was never comfortable with school choice. Yet he also wanted to be known as a reformer, and reformers back choice. Brown and Gardiner gave him political cover on that score.
Vallas trotted out Brown and Gardiner as model charter operators, and even invited them to apply for additional charters without the sort of scrutiny other operators faced. Yet behind the scenes, he discouraged the School Reform Commission from approving other charters.
And that's a shame because most city charters succeed. Philadelphia charter schools have a 94 percent graduation rate compared with barely 50 percent for traditional public schools, despite the charters' spending 31 percent less per pupil. Academically, the charters reach 90 percent of their academic Adequate Yearly Progress goals under No Child Left Behind, compared with 84 percent for traditional schools.
So why is the press skipping the good news on charters while featuring endless stories on two greedy operators, as the SRC dribbles out "new" information each week to generate fresh headlines? I suspect political goals. The SRC wants credit for cleaning up the messes of the Vallas era. But it also wants more power over charters. And bureaucrats and politicians are usually not happy with what they can't control.
Unfortunately, letting the school district run charter schools would be like giving Microsoft control of Apple. Charters' flexibility and parent focus would fall by the wayside.
The political needs of CEO Vallas got us into this mess. Is there any reason to think that the political needs of incoming CEO Arlene Ackerman will get us out?
Fortunately, there's a better way. Colorado, South Carolina, Minnesota, Michigan, New York, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, California and several other states have state-level boards that do nothing but authorize and regulate charters.
By focusing on charters, these boards develop enough expertise to actually know what they're doing. Equally important, the boards have relatively low-profile members who serve staggered terms, taking charters out of local politics.
Unfortunately, until Pennsylvania makes that kind of switch, our charter school policies will be all politics. *
Robert Maranto teaches political science at Villanova. With Myron Kayes, he edited "A Guide to Charter Schools" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006).