Last week, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation held its 46th Annual Legislative Conference.
I am a policy wonk and longtime “CBC Week” attendee. In DC, policy positions typically follow the money. So I was wary of CBCF ALC education sessions in light of the fact that the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association are conference sponsors.
Congressman Bobby Scott, Ranking Member on the Committee on Education and the Workforce, hosted the Education Braintrust.
The focus of the braintrust was “evidence-based programs and best practices for increasing black children’s opportunity for success in today’s education and workforce systems.” Rep. Scott asked presenters to do more than “celebrate the problem.” He called on them to offer solutions. So surely someone would offer charter schools as a solution. No one did.
Although parental involvement is the hallmark of charter schools, speakers dare not say their name at a conference sponsored by the AFT and NEA.
In his remarks at the CBCF 46th Annual Phoenix Awards Dinner, President Barack Obama spoke about his legacy.
Part of Obama’s legacy is his support of charter schools:
During National Charter Schools Week, we celebrate the role of high-quality public charter schools in helping to ensure students are prepared and able to seize their piece of the American dream, and we honor the dedicated professionals across America who make this calling their life's work by serving in charter schools.
Charter schools play an important role in our country's education system. Supporting some of our Nation's underserved communities, they can ignite imagination and nourish the minds of America's young people while finding new ways of educating them and equipping them with the knowledge they need to succeed. With the flexibility to develop new methods for educating our youth, and to develop remedies that could help underperforming schools, these innovative and autonomous public schools often offer lessons that can be applied in other institutions of learning across our country, including in traditional public schools.
Charter schools have been at the forefront of innovation and have found different ways of engaging students in their high school years -- including by providing personalized instruction, leveraging technology, and giving students greater access to rigorous coursework and college-level courses. Over the past 7 years, my Administration's commitment of resources to the growth of charter schools has enabled a significant expansion of educational opportunity, enabling tens of thousands of children to attend high-quality public charter schools. I am committed to ensuring all of our Nation's students have the tools and skills they need to get ahead, and that begins with ensuring they are able to attend an effective school and obtain an excellent education.
The failure to include charter schools among best practices to prepare black boys and girls for lifelong success does not do justice to President Obama’s legacy.
It’s become a cliché to say Philadelphia is “corrupt and contented,” but the facts speak for themselves. In August alone:
Also in August, Controller Alan Butkovitz issued an audit detailing questionable spending by the Mayor’s Fund for Philadelphia during Michael Nutter’s administration.
Located in City Hall, the Fund does not accept unsolicited funding requests. All grant proposals must be sponsored by the Mayor or a Deputy Mayor.
The Fund’s board of directors is comprised of six members, three of whom work for Mayor Kenney, including Sylvie Gallier-Howard, Chief of Staff of the Department of Commerce. Among the “independent” members is Councilman Henon, who, by the way, is still on Johnny Doc’s payroll.
Andrew Frishkoff’s organization, Local Initiatives Support Corporation, received grant(s) from the Fund. Treasurer David Streim’s group, Nonprofit Finance Fund, is sponsored, in part, by - wait for it - the Department of Commerce.
Earlier this year, the Philadelphia Inquirer editorialized that it was “time to end slush fund”:
Philadelphia spent $1.7 million last year to keep Forbes “Under 30 Summit” in the city, according to WHYY, or upward of $1,000 for each of the callow go-getters who attended the October gathering of young entrepreneurs. Was it worth it? Former Mayor Michael Nutter, who tirelessly pursued buzzy events to burnish the city’s image, obviously thought so. Mayor Kenney, on the other hand, has expressed mild reservations.
While he’s weighing the city’s substantial investment in the festival, he might also consider its source. A city-controlled nonprofit known blandly as the Mayor’s Fund for Philadelphia, it subsidizes a variety of causes chosen by the mayor, largely with revenue from the Philadelphia Marathon.
The call to dissolve the Fund was echoed by Jay McCalla, a senior official in the Ed Rendell and John Street administrations:
Why does the mayor need to lay his hands on $5 million to $10 million (or any portion of it) at the spur of the moment?
Butkovitz released an audit concluding that almost $400,000 of this fund had been spent, in part, on global travel, alcohol, parties, and $100,000 in undocumented credit card charges. As eyebrow-raising as these expenses are, the controller makes the added point that none of this was approved by the board that nominally oversees the fund.
The City has asserted its right to a 30-day extension to respond to my Right-to-Know request for documents related to unapproved grants. In the meantime, I will stop by Room 708 to inspect the Fund’s Form 990 for 2015. Needless to say, if my request is denied, I will file a complaint with the IRS.
While Democrats in Philly run for cover from the FBI, it is time for Mayor Kenney to shut down this political “slush fund.”
In 2014, former Mayor Michael Nutter crowed that Philadelphia was the “permanent venue” of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Summit, beating out New York City. Forbes editor Randall Lane said Philly was chosen because it’s “a world class city.”
It was later reported that Nutter paid $1.7 million from the Mayor’s Fund for Philadelphia to play host to the summit. The relationship broke up earlier this year when Mayor Jim Kenney balked at paying $2 million to keep the event in Philadelphia. So Lane said, “Bye Philly,” and moved to Boston.
In November 2015, Nutter and Global Philadelphia Association (Global Philadelphia) crowed that Philly is now the first World Heritage City in the U.S. It was widely reported the designation was made by UNESCO. In fact, the designation was made by the Organization of World Heritage Cities (OWHC), a nonprofit based in Canada. The only eligibility requirement is a city must have an UNESCO World Heritage site. Philadelphia qualifies because Independence Hall is on the UNESCO list.
At the time, I wondered why other U.S. cities with a World Heritage site, including Charlottesville (Monticello and University of Virginia), New York City (Statute of Liberty) and San Antonio (San Antonio Missions) were not OWHC members. Well, as it turns out, OWHC membership is pay-to-play. In addition to $10,000 annual membership dues, members must pay a pro-rated share of OWHC’s expenses.
Philadelphia is the first World Heritage City in the U.S. because no other city is interested in what is effectively a pay-to-play designation.
Global Philadelphia’s conflation of UNESCO and OWHC teed me off. But what keeps me peed off is Global Philadelphia/World Heritage PHL’s silence as developers wreak havoc to the city’s historic character and cultural heritage. As guests clink glasses at this week’s “World Heritage Celebration,” Toll Brothers is poised to wreck Jewelers’ Row, America’s oldest diamond district that dates back to 1850.
If a bunch of one-percenters wants to celebrate a “brand,” hey, that’s their business. It becomes the people’s business when public funds are involved. By the way, Nutter is now a member of Global Philadelphia’s World Heritage Committee.
And get this: Nutter’s handpicked chairperson tapped the Mayor’s Fund and made a $10,000 grant to Global Philadelphia. The grant award reportedly was made over the objection of the Fund’s board of directors.
The board rejected Global Philadelphia’s $25,000 grant proposal “to market the city to the World Heritage City selection committee.” According to the minutes, the board deemed the “designation of Philadelphia as a World Heritage City is not a high priority.”
I finally got a response, albeit incomplete, to my Right-to-Know request. I now know that three City employees went to Arequipa, Peru for the meeting of the OWHC selection committee.
Of the three employees, only one submitted a Reimbursable Expense Voucher. Sylvie Gallier-Howard is on Global Philadelphia’s board of directors.
Where are the other expense vouchers? Were the employees’ airline and lodging expenses paid for with the unauthorized $10,000 grant to Global Philadelphia? The City of Philadelphia is doling out the information piecemeal but this citizen watchdog is not deterred. Instead, I’m submitting another Right-to-Know request.
Stay with me.
It’s back to school. It’s also back to the charter school debate.
In an AlterNet piece, Steven Rosenfeld outlined “10 Reasons Why the NAACP Is Absolutely Right About a National Moratorium on Charter Schools.” I had planned to write a point-by-point rebuttal, but Rosenfeld’s diatribe is more opinion than fact. I remembered the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan often said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
Rosenfeld is entitled to his opinion so I’ll share a few facts. In Philadelphia, nearly one-third of students attend charter schools. There are 83 charter schools, two of which -- MaST Community Charter School and String Theory Charter School -- have a combined waiting list of more than 10,000 students.
The Washington Post recently editorialized:
WHEN SCHOOLS get it right, whether they’re traditional public schools or public charter schools, let’s figure out what’s working and share it with schools across America.” Hillary Clinton was booed at the National Education Association’s summer convention for that self-evidently sensible proposition. The reaction speaks volumes about labor’s uniformed and self-interested opposition to charter schools and contempt for what’s best for children. Now the union has been joined by a couple of organizations that purport to be champions of opportunity.
In separate conventions over recent weeks, the NAACP, the nation’s oldest black civil rights organization, and the Movement for Black Lives, a network of Black Lives Matter organizers, passed resolutions criticizing charter schools and calling for a moratorium on their growth. Charters were faulted by the groups for supposedly draining money from traditional public schools and allegedly fueling segregation. The NAACP measure, which still must be ratified by the board before becoming official, went so far as to liken the expansion of charters to “predatory lending practices” that put low-income communities at risk.
No doubt that will come as a surprise to the millions of parents who have seen their children well-served by charters and to the additional million more who are on charter school waiting lists for their sons and daughters. “You’ve got thousands and thousands of poor black parents whose children are so much better off because these schools exist,” Howard Fuller of the Black Alliance for Educational Options told the New York Times.
This information likely comes as a surprise to opponents of charter schools. But their minds are made up; don’t confuse them with the facts. Indeed, Rosenfeld dismissed the WaPo editorial saying “it is deeply wrong to belittle the issues that affected communities raise—which is the basis for the NAACP’s draft resolution.”
The basis for African American parents’ support of charter schools is the fierce urgency of now. As income has become a proxy for race, they reject the notion that their zip code is destiny. Black parents don’t want their children trapped in failing traditional public schools because they live in the “affected communities.”
Access to charter schools empowers low-income and working-class parents to exercise their right to choose the best educational environment for their children. Fact is, black students make up 27 percent of charter school enrollment nationwide.
The bottom line for Rosenfeld is, well, the bottom line. In his worldview, charter schools “divert” money from traditional public schools. By contrast, supporters believe the money should follow the student. For them the bottom line is: Are students learning the three Rs – reading, writing and arithmetic?
Unfortunately for Rosenfeld and the NAACP, facts are stubborn things.
You know that moment when you have an epiphany. I experienced such a moment while listening to EdChoice President and CEO Robert C. Enlow at the Amplify School Choice Conference earlier this month. Amplify School Choice is a project of the Franklin Center.
Enlow spoke about school choice trends across America and the phenomenon of institutional isomorphism. He explained that over time institutions begin to look like each other. Enlow said that charter schools are beginning to look like traditional public schools, noting that public support for charter schools is decreasing. He warned that advocates are losing the argument for school choice.
I’m a longtime supporter of school choice. That said, Enlow attached a process to my inchoate concern about Philadelphia’s charter schools. To be sure, there are high quality charter schools in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection, including Boys Latin, KIPP and Mastery. High performing schools show love not by merely instilling discipline; they instill in their students a thirst for learning.
Bad charter schools mirror traditional public schools with respect to student performance, financial mismanagement and conflicts of interest. In Philadelphia, the decision to revoke a charter school’s license is subject to political pressure. As a result, chronically low-performing and mismanaged charter schools are allowed to operate for years.
In 2015, Philadelphia magazine published this advice for parents:
It sounds obvious, but don’t forget to Google any schools you’re looking at, to make sure they weren’t once unexpectedly shut down or run by a CEO who pleaded guilty to theft.
Comedian John Oliver honed in on that recommendation in a recent edition of his HBO show "Last Week Tonight."
In an open letter to Oliver, Boys' Latin Charter School Co-Founder Janine Yass wrote:
I have been involved in education reform for over 15 years in the poor city of Philadelphia where over 40,000 children are on charter school waiting lists to escape the horrendous public school system.
Yes, bad ones should close, but what about the bad public schools that continue to operate half full with no teaching going on?!
The response to bad charter schools is accountability, accountability, accountability. The importance of accountability was underscored by Colorado state Rep. Angela Williams during a panel discussion at the Amplify School Choice Conference. Williams said there should be clear and comprehensive accountability standards, and automatic closure of lowest-performing schools.
In response to my question about the NAACP’s call for a moratorium on new charter schools, Rep. Williams said:
What are the laws in your state that create a platform for accountability? We don’t need to be sending our kids to failing schools, whether charter or traditional public schools. I’m not going to stand by and send our kids to failing schools. Charter schools can be successful with the right funding and right governance.
On August 24, Gov. Tom Wolf announced the creation of a new office within the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the Division of Charter Schools. Wolf said in a statement:
Charter schools play an important role in our education system, but that role must be accompanied by sufficient oversight. Establishing this new division within the Department of Education will allow us to maximize our resources to not only ensure charters are being properly supported, but that they are being held accountable to taxpayers.
Bob Fayfich, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said in a statement:
If this initiative is consistent with other actions by the Governor relative to undermining the viability of charter schools, regardless of how effective they are in educating children, then this new Charter Office is something to be concerned about. If, however, this new division is truly dedicated to listening to charter schools and improving public education for all students in Pennsylvania, then we will be supportive.
The fact that no charter school has been consulted in the creation of this office is not a good start, but we will see how the office is funded and staffed and watch closely what it actually does.
Charter school advocates rightly question Wolf’s motive, but there is no question that school choice must be about more than autonomy. Advocates must embrace accountability in equal measure. To that end, they should ensure that a “platform for accountability” is codified in House Bill 530 which the legislature is expected to take up in the fall.
The promise of school choice was that parents would be able to choose from a menu of quality charter schools. And that competition would improve traditional public schools. In Philadelphia, school choice is morphing into two sets of low-performing schools with different governance. With rigorous accountability, charter schools will amplify qualitatively better choices.
Earlier this month, the FBI and IRS raided the offices and home of John Dougherty, business manager of IBEW Local 98. Johnny Doc, as he is called, is the most powerful union leader-cum-kingmaker in Philadelphia.
The FBI also raided the offices of Philadelphia Councilman Bobby Henon, IBEW Local 98’s former political director.
Henon earns a six-figure salary as a full-time councilman. But in a city that is notoriously “corrupt and contented,” that’s not enough. The Philadelphia City Council majority leader is still on Johnny Doc’s payroll. Henon was “the brain” behind the push for a new jail last year. I was part of the coalition that successfully pushed back.
That same District Attorney failed to report $160,050 in gifts, including a $45,000 roof repair on his home, and cash gifts of $1,500 and $10,000 from “friends.”
And now this: A developer, Toll Brothers, plans to erase the historic character of Jewelers Row.
The preservation community is fighting back. The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia is circulating a petition to stop the madness:
A suburban developer wants to demolish six buildings on Philadelphia's Jewelers Row in order to put up a new luxury apartment tower. Jewelers Row is America’s oldest diamond district and the 2nd largest in the nation. Its enduring charm comes from the intimate small scale shops and storefronts that have lined this brick-paved thoroughfare for 150 years. Gouging out these six buildings will forever alter Jewelers Row and ruin one of our city's most iconic destinations. Please help stop this outrageous and destructive land grab. Let’s help them find another place for their project.
You don’t have to be a preservationist to be concerned about the impact of development on Philly’s unique character. So please sign the petition to save Jewelers Row.