Salt in Schenley’s Wounds

Is Pittsburgh seriously going to consider handing over the beautiful old Schenley High School to a charter school operator? Closing that building back in 2008 raised many concerns in the community about dismantling a thriving urban high school. More recently, Schenley alumns and supporters have raised serious questions about the rationale for the closing, which was based in large part on the estimated costs of asbestos remediation. It now appears those costs may have been vastly overstated and that the School Board may not have had important data on which to base their decision. Protestors have gathered over 1,000 signatures on a petition these past couple of weeks asking the School Board to take its time and investigate these significant charges. [Concerned Citizens Petition]

Meanwhile, however, the School Board has received proposals from four groups wishing to purchase the historic Schenley building in Oakland. And two of them would turn the space back into a school. Most heart wrenching to me is the proposal from a group of Schenley alumns who are trying to raise money to create a private school for visual and performing arts named after a fellow alumnus, Andy Warhol.

Here I have to agree with Post-Gazette letter writer Anna Watt-Morse, who said that this plan strikes her “as out of touch with the current realities of our city and its schools.” She reminds us that “Pittsburgh already has a wonderful school for the arts, CAPA … that has had to cut art departments and eliminate vital private music lessons because of reduced funding” and that “arts education at other city schools … is drastically underfunded.” What’s more, “A new, tuition-based Schenley would … benefit only the students who can afford private education.” Watt-Morse concludes, “A gift in the name of Andy Warhol should provide opportunity for all students of the Pittsburgh Public Schools, not a select few.” [Post-Gazette, 1-17-13]

The second proposal the School Board is considering that would turn the building into a school would actually mean handing it over to a charter school operator. Kossman Development Co. plans to convert the space into housing for college students and young professionals as well as the Provident Charter School for dyslexic children. [Post-Gazette, 1-23-13] If students are not having their learning needs met in their neighborhood schools, this is a serious equity issue that we must address. But I am not a big fan of creating segregated learning ghettos, especially since this model does not address the needs of all our students, just those who might gain access to the school.

And the last thing we need is another charter school draining resources from our already struggling public schools. Among other things, the Kossman/Provident Charter School proposal depends on $5.2 million in federal and state tax credits – those are our public dollars that will not be available for other public needs, including public education. Last week the Tribune Review reported that public schools are now having to spend thousands of dollars on advertising campaigns to “compete” with charter schools. Penn Hills school district will spend $84,000 over the next two years and Woodland Hills just awarded a $13,000 contract to develop infomercials. [Tribune Review, 1-17-13] Corporate-style-reformers love to talk about the benefits of “competition” – but what a great example of the waste this creates. As taxpayers and parents we ought to be incensed that our public schools are now forced to spend valuable resources on TV spots when students are losing art, music, and history. My 6th grader is sitting in a math class with 39 students because of budget cuts. The last thing I want is my school district spending money on internet pop-up ads.

But that is just what districts across the state are being forced to do as charter schools take painful bites out of dwindling resources. The Tribune Review recently surveyed 50 school districts in our area and found that some have seen their student enrollment in charters double, or even quadruple in the past four years. Others have stemmed the tide, and are seeing a reverse flow, with fewer students enrolled in charters than four years ago. Most of those districts surveyed had between 1-3% of their students enrolled in charters; but eight schools have more than 10% attending charters this year. These include 37.5% of all students in Duquesne; 35% in Wilkinsburg; 29% in Woodland Hills; almost 23% in Sto-Rox; and nearly 20% in Penn Hills. [These are my calculations based on the Trib’s report: see all the data here.]

Notice anything? These are districts with high poverty rates, some suffering from the worst effects of post-industrial decline. They are also districts with large African American populations. The state-imposed recovery officer in Duquesne is talking about closing the elementary school there, which would essentially dismantle the entire school district. Something is seriously wrong with our funding mechanisms when a community can no longer educate its own children.

This year, the 49 school districts that responded to the Trib’s survey will spend a whopping $118 million on charter school reimbursements. And that’s only 49 districts out of the 125 here in Southwest Pennsylvania. $118 million.

For all that money, we ought to be getting a great return. But the fact is that while some charter schools perform well, the majority do not. The Corbett administration tried to mislead the public last fall by using different criteria to judge charter school performance on standardized tests than for traditional public schools. [See “A Liar and a Cheat”] The Lehigh Valley’s Morning Call published an investigation today revealing that, “The number of charter schools hitting testing benchmarks plummeted after the federal government said the state Education Department graded them too leniently.” [The Morning Call, 1-23-13] Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis initially claimed that almost half of charter schools had made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) under federal guidelines, but that number dropped to only 28% of the state’s 156 charter schools. By comparison, 49% of the state’s public schools made AYP.

The report found that “Tomalis initiated [the new grading system] without federal approval and at the behest of a charter school lobbying group.” He made it “easier for charter schools to reach federal standards” by classifying “charters, no matter their size, as school districts, which are measured on a broader scale than individual schools.” Again, to compare: 61% of Pennsylvania’s 499 school districts made AYP. [The Morning Call, 1-23-13]

This deception matters on another level, too: besides misleading us about the success of charter schools, Governor Corbett and Secretary Tomalis would now have us treat charter schools as their own school districts. This is a new development, since brick and mortar charter schools have always claimed to be public schools operating under the auspices of local districts and their democratically elected school boards. (Cyber charter schools are already chartered by and operating only under the supervision of the state, which poses other issues of centralizing power with political appointees.) If charter schools are in fact districts, where are their locally elected school directors who answer to the public that put them in office?

This feels like another way of taking the public out of public education. It’s time to put the brakes on authorizing yet more charter schools. The Pittsburgh school board needs to take a close look at the money it is being forced to spend on charter school tuition – $52 million this year alone – before it sells Schenley to another charter operator. That would be like rubbing salt in the deep wounds of a community already reeling from the effects of a painful and disruptive school closure.

3 thoughts on “Salt in Schenley’s Wounds

  1. No matter how they twist it — the “democratic imperative” for our schools always emerges. If you take democracy out of public education, you take democracy out of America.

  2. NONE of this is about safety conditions and/or saving money. On the contrary, it’s all about making money for the already rich business folks who see Urban Ed. as the newest way to steal form the poor.

  3. I think the best and highest purpose for the Schenley building is as a county-wide magnet public school for civic engagement. Students would study political philosopy, economics, history, and systems of government – local, state and national as well as muti-national organizations and NGOs. They would research current issues and would be encouraged to participate in public affairs. With Pitt resources nearby, we could offer an academically challenging curriculuum and provide opportunites for students to engage among themselves and with others about the challenges of a democractic society.

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