Mark Gleason’s testimony to the School Reform Commission on charter policies

“Any healthy school system must be dynamic in its approach, which means taking action to address low-performing schools”

Testimony to the School Reform Commission, Mark Gleason, Executive Director, Philadelphia School Partnership

Mr. Chairman, members of the Commission, thank you for your service, and for the opportunity to comment today. I am the executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership. PSP is a nonprofit striving to help expand the number of great schools in Philadelphia. To date, we have invested over 31 million dollars in about 30 schools that are on their way to serving nearly 15,000 students. These include district, charter and Catholic schools; 83 percent of students enrolled in these schools are from low-income households; 94 percent are African-American or Latino. We plan to invest a total of 100 million dollars in roughly 60 schools across the city by 2016 with the vast majority of that going to public schools.

I’m here tonight to acknowledge and support the hardest part of your job: deciding whether and when to close schools or put them into complete turnaround. Closing schools is hard on the city, and especially hard on affected communities. But, there is no more important role for the SRC than ensuring that public schools are fulfilling their responsibility to provide a thorough and efficient education and carefully stewarding public resources.

A little over two years ago, the SRC joined the Mayor, State Secretary of Education, and Philadelphia charter and Catholic school leaders in committing to work together to expand the number of great schools and to dramatically reduce the number of chronically underperforming schools in the city. Specifically, they jointly committed to replace or improve the poorest performing quartile of schools in the system by 2017, through:

  • expanding the enrollment of high performing schools
  • transforming, turning around or closing low performing schools
  • forming new and innovative schools of all types ; and
  • helping families to more readily identify and choose high performing schools

A number of tonight’s resolutions-including the Authorizing Quality Initiative-demonstrate the SRC’s continuing commitment to achieving these goals. There is evidence of a commitment to setting high standards for academic achievement and financial stewardship. There is evidence of due diligence. There is clearly effort being applied to redesign and improve oversight of school performance. And it’s crucial for our city that you are doing all of this. None of these actions by itself solves a problem. Closing a school as a standalone action isn’t enough. Opening a new school is exciting, but if not done in concert with other steps it adds expense and overhead to a system that is short on revenue.

Tonight you vote on the recommended closure of one school. The resolution and accompanying material provide a detailed and substantial rationale. All of us in the city must remain aware that there are many other schools-both charter and district-which also need to be addressed, that also are falling short of expectations. It’s worth noting that even with its shortcomings the school in question tonight is one in demand by families-as evidenced by its high enrollment. Notably, there are a number of other schools in the neighborhood that are under-performing and under-enrolled. So by itself, a closure here doesn’t solve a core problem in north Philadelphia. There will need to be other steps taken to ensure that every student in this neighborhood has the opportunity to attend a good school.

To close, I will reiterate that any healthy school system must be dynamic in its approach, which means taking action to address low-performing schools while also leveraging and expanding those that are successful. I am encouraged that the proposed charter policies create a framework and a pathway for expanding our highest-quality charters, opening new innovative schools, and closing or transforming the city’s lowest performing schools. Our hope is that the SRC and school leaders of all types will join with parents and teachers across the city to focus on how we create more great schools. We are ready to be a partner in this effort and all efforts to expand access to high-quality schools so that every child in every neighborhood of Philadelphia has an equal opportunity to a great education.