Ferrick@Fels: Death of the Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger Education

June 06, 2011

By Tom Ferrick Jr.

The important thing to know about the Philadelphia School District as it goes through the painful process of cutting $600 million from its budget is that it no longer is the Philadelphia School District.
As this stage, we need to add an "s" to the end of the last word in the above sentence.. There really are multiple districts -- each with its own constituencies. A collection of niche markets, if you will.
This is a major change from 10 years ago, when the district was a monolithic, centrally-controlled dispenser of education. There were nominal republics within the union, but the real power resided at the Kremlin. Excuse me, I meant school district headquarters. And what of that education? With a few exceptions, it resembled that Saturday Night Live skit about the diner where they only serve cheeseburgers, cheeseburgers, cheeseburgers...and Pepsi. No Coke.
If you didn't like the menu, tough noogies. You could go to private school, Catholic school or leave the city.
But, the district was about to undergo seismic changes, caused by two major forces
One was charter schools, In 1997, the state passed a law allowing for creation of schools, publicly funded by independently operated, that would be "chartered" by local districts.
The teacher unions and most districts disliked charters, but they saw them as alternatives to vouchers, an idea they despised. From the beginning, Philadelphia was a hotbed of charter creation, many of them opened by former district employees and teachers who grew weary of waiting for reform within.
By 2001, there were 16,500 attending charters in Philadelphia, but there were 198,000 in the district-run schools..
In the school year beginning this September, the district projects there will be 51,000 students enrolled in charters and 152,000 students attending district-run schools.
No one expected charters to be this popular, but parents embraced them as safer, kinder and gentler alternatives to district schools -- that were tuition free. Parent satisfaction is high, even though many charters do not perform better than district-run schools. In a 2010 poll conducted for the Pew Charitable Trusts, charter parents uniformly gave their schools approval ratings in the 90s.
Another watershed was in 2001, when the state took over the district and installed the School Reform Commission (SRC) to run the darn thing. In turn, the SRC hired Paul Vallas, the whirlwind of a superintendent, who decided the district, instead of disdaining the middle class, should work to retain them. The menu changed from cheeseburgers and Pepsi. No Coke! to a rich salad bar, especially on the secondary level. When Vallas arrived in 2002, there were 31 high schools in the district. Today, there are 61.
Vallas favored smaller "boutique" high schools, as they are called in the district (they are also called, disdainfully, the Gucci Schools) that emphasized specialty topics such as science, math, creative and culinary arts, music, politics and public affairs, etc.
They were embraced by cheeseburger-weary parents who craved for more than the neighborhood high schools could offer, in an atmosphere where they could be reasonably assured that their child would not get the crap beat out of them by other students.
Whenever you empower a group to make decisions, those decisions have consequences. When people departed district for charter schools, empty seats were left behind in the local elementary and middle schools.
When parents opted to send their children to a boutique school, the local neighborhood high school got emptier. And emptier.
Charters in the city uniformly report waiting lists that cannot shrink unless they are allowed to increase their capacity.
This is why the large deficit is not such a terrible thing. It gives the district the opportunity to adjust to the changed landscape.
On one hand, there are a dozen neighborhood high schools that are more than half empty. To name a few: Benjamin Franklin is at 36 percent of its capacity; Roxborough at 37 percent. Germantown High was built to hold 2,600. Today, it has 1,013 students.
On the other hand, many of the boutique schools are overstuffed. Central High School and Masterman are each at 137 percent of capacity; the new Science Leadership Academy is at 127 percent.
Meanwhile, some of the oldest niches -- the vocational- technical schools -- are emptying out. For instance, over 60 percent of the seats at Mastbaum and Dobbins Vo-Techs are unfilled.
It would have been nice if the district, looking at these numbers, used the crisis caused by the deficit to consolidate underutilized schools, expand the successful ones and allow charters to increase capacity. It certainly would save a lot of money. The neighborhood high schools, for instance, are expensive to operate. With fewer students, they are not able to offer the whole panoply of academic and extracurricular activities associated with big high schools.
The district missed the opportunity. It did not release the facilities' data until last month, long after the budget for next year was drawn up. It has, of course, a process in place to hold public hearings on the facilities report, then it will draw up a list, that will undoubtedly call for closing and consolidating a number of schools.
Whether the SRC and the district administration will have the moxie to act on the plan remains to be seen. People don't care if their local school is half-empty, they like the fact it is close by.
If vouchers pass the state legislature this year (and it appears the odds are tilting towards passage) that will add another factor into the mix. Parents will get other choices -- and the money -- to send their children to Catholic and private schools.
Ten years down the road, we may see situation where the traditional district-run public schools are the smallest piece of a still large system of charter, Catholic, private and alternative public schools..
You never know what will happen once you unleash market forces. It could mean the death of the cheeseburger.

Tom Ferrick, Jr., a journalist with more than 35 years of experience as a reporter, editor and columnist, is writing a regular column to keep the greater Fels community tuned in to Philadelphia. He is currently Senior Editor at Metropolis, a website offering in-depth news, analysis, and commentary about the Philadelphia region.

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