After several years of frustrating delays, on Feb. 18, Eastern University received final approval from the Philadelphia School District to open its charter school in the Fall of 2009. At that same meeting, Arlene Ackerman, Superintendent of the Philadelphia School District, announced her proposals for school reform, which included granting many more charters and turning over some schools to the management of for-profit companies. In the same vein in his address to Congress on Feb. 24, Pres. Obama announced his plans for education reform, which included the starting of more charter schools across the country. So it seems that charter schools are all the rave, and for many political leaders, central to addressing the underperforming public school system particularly in economically depressed urban and rural areas. In fact when Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, approached the Chancellor of the New York City Schools about taking over a couple of public elementary schools in Harlem, he was advised that he would do better to simply start his own charter school than try to revive the failing public schools.

According to U.S. Charter Schools, charter schools are given public money to run programs independent of the existing public school system tailored to meet the needs of a specific group of students. In exchange for the freedom to innovate, charter schools are held accountable to provide students with a level of education equal to or above national standards. While charter schools cannot “select” their students (enrollment must be open to all), they often do not have the special needs programs required of regular public schools. Thus, by virtue of the fact that they are not designed to meet these needs, charter schools by default screen out children with some of the most difficult academic and behavioral problems. Also, because families must choose to apply to a charter schools, those children from the most dysfunctional families often don’t even know of the charter schools option. Also, charter schools usually can avoid teachers unions and some of the power politics involved in public school education. Thus, it is understandable why parents, students and politicians are attracted to the charter school option, as it avoids many of the problems and barriers faced by a people involved in the public schools.

As the Philadelphia and New York examples illustrate, the CEOs of large urban public school districts seem to have given up on the very system they have been charged to lead. Therein lies my dilemma. If the leaders of our public school systems and the President of the United States no longer believe in the public education system, what hope is there for true public school reform?

This issue has taken on a very concrete manifestation for me. Over the past 18 months, I have been involved with a group called the West Philadelphia High School (WPHS) Community Partners, a group of students, teachers, community members, business folks, and concerned professionals seeking to promote innovative changes to a vastly underperforming urban high school. Essentially, we have been asking that WPHS be given the same flexibility to innovate as a charter school, but have been informed thus far that our proposals are too expensive, and unrealistic.

As positive as they are, charter schools pose a significant challenge to overall fabric of communities. Charter schools’ focus is usually not geographical, so they draw from across a wider area than a regular community based school. Sociologists point out neighborhood schools are essential to the overall health of a community. Families with small children consider the quality of schools a major factor in choosing where to live. If schools are underperforming, parents will often send their children to private or parochial schools (if they have the means to do so), or move to a community with a better public school. Charter schools are a form of the private/parochial option without the cost to the family. While this option serves the individual students and family well, it undermines the potential of a community by draining the local school of capable students and involved parents. While this phenomena is most pronounced in economically depressed areas, I see it happening in my suburban school district as well. Nearly 35% of school age children in our suburban district attend a non-public school option. Moreover, this district continually faces the opposition of tax-payer groups not wanting to support the local school. If this trend gains strength, even in this middle class suburb, public school quality will continue to decline. Charter schools, like private and parochial schools, serve the needs of individuals but often at the expense of the wider community.

So, when a community group, such as the WPHS Community Partners, asks to innovate their local high school, why are they rebuffed? Essentially, our proposal has been to convert WPHS, a school of 1200 students, into four “small schools” within one building. Each school would be comprised of 300 students, have a particular focus (Performing Arts, Business, Auto Mechanics, Urban Leadership) and be led by its own principal who would have freedom to innovate. By sharing the same building the schools could cooperate in use of facilities and large group programs such as music and athletics. This model has proven successful in urban areas such as Providence, RI and South Bronx. While there are greater costs at the leadership level, those costs are more than made up in reduced need for security, discipline, and following up on drop outs. Students in small schools don’t “fall thru the cracks” and become a caring learning community. While we are stilling hoping for a more positive response, I suspect the reasons the Philadelphia district is hesitant get down to teacher union intransigence, intra-district politics, the traditional school distrust of community groups, and a fear if the model works, it might put pressure on the district to replicate the model in other schools. However, if the model works, and strengthens a community in the process, perhaps such a change is necessary.

Please don’t misunderstand; I am not opposed to charter schools. I am only concerned about the trend they represent. My concern is if public school districts simply farm out their problems to independent groups, the very purpose of public education (to equitably educate citizens for the common good) will be undermined. Avoiding the necessary reform of the very core of public education cannot be accomplished by working around that system. To do so is to relegate many potential star students, dedicated teachers, concerned parents, and community residents to a second class, inadequate education. We will serve the interests of individuals but further undermine the health of struggling communities while we are doing it.