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Call To Action: Local Charter School Students Need Your Help

For the better part of the past two years, I have been a teacher at Memphis Street Academy Charter School (formerly John Paul Jones Middle School) in Port Richmond. Memphis Street Academy (MSA) is a “Renaissance School”, part of a Philadelphia School District program to transform some of its chronically underachieving schools into high-quality schools. Although we are a charter school, we do not have a lottery to pick and choose our students. We will always serve the same students that John Paul Jones would have served if it continued to function as a public school. We serve neighborhood kids.

My job is like a dream. Every day, I witness events that give me hope for the world and restore my faith in humanity. My students are my heroes. The changes and progress I have seen in these students over the past two years is amazing. I use that word in the literal sense, not casually. Every day, challenges are overcome. New advancements are made. These kids prove that they have always been filled with talent and brilliance. As teachers, we do not have to dig deep for it. It’s right there. MSA students love being involved in afterschool clubs, sports teams, and special programs – opportunities they did not have in the past. At the end of the day, many of our students do not like to leave school. They take advantage of everything their school has to offer. They feel safe here.

There is still a lot of work to be done. Reading and math scores still need to come up (as they always will). Behavior can always be improved, but the truth is these students have made an unbelievable amount of progress in their first two years in a turnaround school. Unfortunately, there are two bills being proposed in the very near future that not only threaten that progress, but may very well take us several steps backward…or worse.

Memphis Street Academy and all Pennsylvania charter schools are facing a very serious crisis.  Proposed state legislation and projected reductions in local school district funding would result in a 24% cut for charter schools – or between 55-60% of what traditional local district schools would receive – over the next three years. The proposed legislation (Senate Bill 1316 and House Bill 2138) intends to dramatically cut funds for special education students at Pennsylvania’s public charter schools.

If these bills are passed, charters would receive 30% to 60% less in special ed funding than traditional public schools over the next three years.  In other words, special ed students at charters will get less than their district school counterparts solely because they attend charter schools. The truth is though that charter schools are public schools, serving nearly one-third of all public school students in Philadelphia. Together, charter schools constitute the second largest public school district in Pennsylvania, giving parents and students an option outside of traditional district schools. If Senate Bill 1316 and House Bill 2138 are passed, many charter schools will not be able to sustain funding cuts of this magnitude, and will undoubtedly be forced to close their doors.

If this legislation is enacted, special education funding for Pennsylvania public charter schools will be cut by as much as $10,000 per student annually as a result of a new funding formula being applied to public schools. By special education, I mean all students with special needs – students who have academic needs, emotional needs, or any other disability that would require individualized support.

So what happens if schools get hit with these drastic budget cuts? Each school’s overall budget has to be shifted around to meet basic needs inside the classrooms. This could lead to cuts in personnel, such as cafeteria aids, instructional aids, hall monitors, and several other positions that help create a safe learning environment in a school. Budget cuts could also lead to downsizing or dissolving the afterschool clubs and sports programs. Many other extracurricular learning opportunities, such as high school advanced placement classes and critical early intervention programs (e.g., tutoring and summer enrichment), could also be on the chopping block. From my vantage point, I know that would be devastating to our children. These programs help a school build trust with students, and that trust is a springboard for learning and good behavior in the classroom.

In addition, the Legislature is considering bills that will eliminate the PSERS (Public Employees Retirement System) retirement subsidy for charter schools. This will add up to an additional 10% reduction in funding for charter schools. Not to mention that the lack of PSERS would affect new teachers’ decisions in considering Pennsylvania charter schools as a means of employment.

The truth is that it is unfair and unconstitutional to treat charter school students, their parents, and their teachers as second-class citizens. Making blanket cuts like these across the board will undoubtedly lead to insurmountable learning challenges in the classroom. Sadly, the issues inside the classroom will lead to long-term consequences in our workforce and society years from now as our students reach adulthood. These cuts are shortsighted and inconsiderate of our children and society as a whole. Parents of charter school students – as well as taxpayers who rely on charter schools as one of the principal providers of public education in Pennsylvania – should demand equal treatment for these children.

At least four or five times a week, I ask a student how he or she thinks the turnaround at Memphis Street is going. I ask how it is compared to when the school was Jones Middle School. I want to know if what we are trying to do is working. As a teacher, I need to self-evaluate. Every single time, without exception, my students tell me that the school is so much better, that they can concentrate now. They are happy that there is less fighting and violence. They like being able to have activities and sports and class trips. I look at these kids, and I fear the future that Senate Bill 1316 and House Bill 2138 can bring to their lives. They know it too. Last week, many of our students, along with legions of other Pennsylvania charter school scholars, teachers and staff members, rallied in Harrisburg to protect their education.

Senate Bill 1316 and House Bill 2138 are being voted on next month. These bills and the cuts they bring need to be opposed. So what can you do to help? You can speak up to legislators. You can find your legislators by going to http://www.legis.state.pa.us/ and scrolling down to FIND YOUR LEGISLATOR. Type in your home address twice – once for the House Representatives and once for the Senate Representatives. Call, write, and email to let them know how much this will impact the school community. Tell them to vote NO on Senate Bill 1316 and House Bill 2138. Below is some contact information for House Leadership:

Appropriations Committee for the House of Representatives

1) Democratic Chair- Representative Joseph Markosek – 717-783-1540

2) Chair- Representative William Adolph, Jr. – 717-787-1248

Education Committee for the House of Representatives

1) Democratic Chair- Representative James R. Roebuck, Jr. – 717-783-1000

2) Chair- Paul Clymer – 717-783-3154

3) State Representative John Taylor – 717-787-3179

4) State Senator Christine Tartaglione – 717-787-1141

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