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Letters: School$: Not how much, but how/where

A RECENT Daily News editorial would have readers believe that charter schools are to blame for the school district's financial distress and the resulting poor education outcomes. But our problem isn't budgetary constraints, it is budgetary choices.

A RECENT Daily News editorial would have readers believe that charter schools are to blame for the school district's financial distress and the resulting poor education outcomes. But our problem isn't budgetary constraints, it is budgetary choices.

Earlier this month the Pennsylvania Department of Education released its new School Performance Profiles for every public school in the commonwealth. The scores confirm what parents, students and educators already know: Many schools in Philadelphia are struggling while others are transforming students' lives - and doing it with the same resources.

Of nearly 200 schools in Philadelphia with a student population that is more than 80 percent economically disadvantaged, there are 17 that the state rates "on track" or higher. Those 17 schools are producing graduates who can read, who can do math and who are better prepared for college and the work world. Those 17 schools prove we can give every kid, regardless of income or ZIP code, a good education.

At the same time, last year Philadelphia spent close to $190 million operating schools where less than 25 percent of students are reading and doing math at grade level. Attending these schools - schools that have struggled for decades, since long before charters, before testing and before budget cuts - is, for many children, in essence a life sentence to poverty.

More than 16,000 students attend these long-struggling schools. Of more than 2,400 who were in 12th grade, according to state data, only 17 students scored at the "college ready" threshold or above on the SAT or ACT last year. That bears repeating: 17 . . . out of 2,400, or less than 1 percent.

Meanwhile, last week the School Reform Commission received applications from 40 new charter schools after a seven-year hiatus during which applications for new schools were not allowed. Undoubtedly, some of the 40 proposals are ill-conceived and should be denied. But several applications were submitted by organizations operating some of the top-achieving schools in the city. For example, Freire Charter applied to open a new high school. Freire's current city high school graduated 85 percent of its students last year, and 24 of its 90 graduates had college-ready scores. While not yet nearly enough, that's more than 26 times the rate of college preparedness in the city's low-performing schools - and more students in that one school than in all the lowest-performing high schools in the city combined.

Or consider Mastery Simon Gratz High School. Prior to Gratz's conversion to a turnaround charter school, Gratz students faced years of persistent violence and academic shortfall. Today, Gratz boasts the largest gains in the city on the SPP. This, despite serving the same student population with the same poverty and related challenges as before turnaround. Mastery, too, has applied to serve more students in new schools.

With these and other great schools, both charter and district, ready and willing to grow, we can't tell families who have been waiting for years to just keep on waiting while we pour more money into schools that aren't working.

That is really the choice: With our limited resources, do we continue propping up schools that have let students down year after year, or do we give more families the chance to experience something better? Pitting charters against the district misses the point entirely. If we care about Philadelphia's future, we have to tip the scale away from ineffective schools to schools that work.

We will hear a lot in the next few weeks and months about "budget constraints," but what we are really faced with are budget choices. Let's make the right ones for Philadelphia's students.

Mark Gleason

Executive Director

Philadelphia School Partnership

Calling charter schools in Pennsylvania a "lie" is a callous and offensive claim to the more than one in three Philadelphia families whose children attend charter schools, and to the 40,000 stuck on waiting lists trying to get their kids into a better school.

By using the most neutral of arbiters - the Pennsylvania Department of Education's School Performance Profile - we are able to sort all Pennsylvania schools based upon the total population of "economically disadvantaged" students served. When using this to compare public schools in Philadelphia, charter schools primarily serving economically disadvantaged students are significantly outperforming traditional public schools serving the same population. Out of 194 schools in Philadelphia with student bodies that are more than 80 percent economically disadvantaged, only 17 earned an SPP score of at least 70, the state's guideline for a school that is deemed satisfactory. And of these 17 schools, more than 75 percent are public charter schools. Therefore, when you compare charter and traditional schools on the same playing field, it is plain to see that charters are far outperforming the district schools.

What's more, your editorial conveniently omitted the fact that charter schools in Philadelphia receive on average $5,000 less in per-student allocations than traditional public schools. Charter schools are clearly doing more with less.

We do agree, however, with several points made by your editorial: expansions of staff in the School District of Philadelphia Charter School Office to better oversee the sector, closure of persistently low-performing charters, drawing a distinction between the performance of brick-and-mortar charter schools and cyber charters, and developing a fair funding formula that will improve all schools in the commonwealth.

Charter schools are working for 67,000 families in Philadelphia, especially those in neighborhoods where traditional public schools are failing. It is time to stop with the attacks on charter schools and focus our attention on providing a quality education - regardless of school type - to all Philadelphia children.

Amy Hollister, M. Ed.

Board member

Philadelphia Charters for Excellence