Charter schools have been operating for 20 years in Pennsylvania, yet the public discussion continues to be focused on the premise that it's a zero-sum game.
The latest salvos were fired recently by Research for Action, which published a study concluding that charter schools continue to create "stranded costs" for public school districts long after students have gone.
Then critics like the Inquirer rushed to conclude that "the movement toward charter schools is raising costs for public education, and there is no sign of true benefit."
And once again, we're back to stoking the "charter vs. public" debate as all one or the other; that is, whatever is good for charters must be bad for the school districts in which they are located.
All of which continues to miss the point: The real issue, especially when it comes to children living in poverty, is whether all students have access to good schools regardless of whether they are charters, district schools, or parochial or private schools.
Instead of complaining about stranded costs, districts should be worried about the students who choose charters to avoid being "stranded" in failing public schools.
There's a reason that charter schools are growing so rapidly in Philadelphia. For far too many families, especially poor families, charters are the only alternative to neighborhood public schools that are little more than a public embarrassment.
Consider the situation in North Philadelphia, where 34 schools — including 30 district public schools — scored in the single digits on the School Progress Report (SPR), the district's own metric for measuring a school's effectiveness, where the top SPR score is 100. In other words, single-digit scores are a public acknowledgment that these schools are failing their students.
Maybe it's just a coincidence that these miserable district schools are all in North Philadelphia. But if these same failing schools were in Center City or Chestnut Hill, does anyone doubt that the wealthy residents of these neighborhoods would choose charters or any other better option for their children? And would anyone criticize them for doing so? Of course not.
And that is the real question in the ongoing debate about education reform in Philadelphia: School choice is a fact of life for wealthy, mostly white families in Philadelphia. So if it's OK for them to flee failing public schools, why criticize poor people for doing the same thing?
Having founded and run a charter school for 10 years, I acknowledge that there are costs to the district when students choose charters. But the opportunity costs for the children involved are far greater than the stranded costs that generate such intense public debate.
For those who are stranded, the future is bleak. Here's just one example: A recent study showed that just one in 10 of the district's African American male graduates go on to earn a two-year degree, a four-year degree, or a successful military enlistment.
We've got to do better.
Charter or public, the real challenge is to provide high-quality schools so that all children, regardless of their zip code, graduate prepared to succeed in college.
The reality is that for all of its effort — and no one questions the hardworking teachers and administrators who populate the system — the district simply is not equipped to address these issues by itself. In that sense, charters help provide better options for families who need them today.
So, to those who decry the impact of stranded costs as yet another reason to oppose charter schools, let's focus instead on the real issue:
Parents who exercise school choice are only trying to do what's best for their children, whether it's a charter school or Penn Charter School.