Today is the holiday set aside for reflection on the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Peter Greene’s new history of the ruination of Pennsylvania’s Chester Upland Public Schools, published last week in Forbes, ought to be required reading on this holiday to remind us how badly our society has stumbled along the journey for justice for America’s poorest African American children.
On Wednesday, Joseph R. Biden will be inaugurated as U.S. President. Look for a new post on Friday, January 22.
Greene explains: “As the new year begins, one Pennsylvania public school district faces the prospect of being completely dismantled and handed over to charter operators. Chester Upland School District is poised to become an example of what can happen to a public school district that needs assistance, and gets nothing but trouble instead. CUSD has weathered every sort of challenge a district can face, but may now be on its last legs, about to make history as the first Pennsylvania district to be completely privatized.”
I have known about the tragedy in Chester Upland since the mid-1990s, but Greene explains how its segregated history goes back to the years before Brown, when the district educated Black and white children separately as a matter of policy. Greene reports that only after 1964 was Chester Upland ordered to desegregate, but middle class white flight followed, and “the 1960s saw an exodus of major employers like Ford Motor and Baldwin Locomotive. People and solid middle class jobs were both leaving, and the school district’s tax base was evaporating.”
Then came the so-called solution: accountability-based school reform. Chester Upland earned a D+ rating from the state at the same time its next-door neighbor, Wallingford-Swarthmore earned an A+: “By 1994, the district was named the worst-performing school in the state…. In 2000, the state declared the district financially distressed, meaning that they could be taken over by a state-appointed Board of Control.” The state hired the for-profit Edison Schools to manage the Chester Upland District, until the corporation quit in 2005, saying they had not been fully paid and that ‘we were no longer going to be enough of an active agent for positive change.'”
A succession of state overseer boards followed, but in the meantime Vahan Gureghian opened the nonprofit, Chester Community Charter School, and the for-profit Charter School Management, Inc., which then became the nonprofit’s manager. Gureghian earned so much that he built a Palm Beach mansion he later sold for $84.5 million.
Some of Gureghian’s profits came from Pennsylvania’s mechanism for funding special education in charter schools at a flat rate of $40,000 per student no matter whether the child is autistic, blind, a victim of severe multiple handicaps or impaired by a speech impediment. Greene reports that, in a court decision, Judge Chad Kenney declared: “The Charter Schools serving Chester Upland special education students reported in 2013-14… that they did not have any special education students costing them anything outside the zero to twenty-five thousand dollar range, and yet, this is remarkable considering they receive forty thousand dollars for each one of these special education students under a legislatively mandated formula.”
Still under state takeover and a succession of emergency management boards, the school district experienced escalating financial problems. Teachers went through periods when they agreed to work without pay to serve the students. Greene reports: “The recovery plan of December, 2019, laid out the troubles that faced the district. Since 2012, four recovery plans, four receivers, three chief recovery officers. Constant turnover in staff and faculty. The school district had ‘failed to maximize potential benefits from’ from previous plans, aka, the previous plans hadn’t worked. 100% of the student body eligible for free and reduced lunch; 89% Black, 7% Hispanic. Substantial amounts of ‘deferred maintenance’ and ‘underfunded capital improvements budgets’ were blamed for dropped enrollment.”
Greene continues: “At the same time, the three charter schools in Chester, even though they only covered grades K-8, had enrolled over half the students in the district. Chester Community Charter School has become the largest bricks-and-mortar charter school in the state… and Pennsylvania’s funding gap between rich and poor districts has continued to be one of the worst in the country. Chester Upland has been on the losing side of all these issues, with the added impact of repeated, failed state takeovers, using a receivership model that puts the court-appointed receiver in charge with huge powers….”
Last September, administrative services in the school district were handed over to a Chester County regional authority, which reduced staff. And a request for proposals was circulated “to outsource operation of the schools.” Everyone must wait to see who gets the contract, but it looks as though Chester Upland will become an all-charter school district. A big question involves the future of the still-public high school.
Greene concludes: “The death spiral occurs when charters strip resources from the public system, leaving that system further struggling, which fuels more parent departure for charters… What is the hope for Chester Upland schools? … State-mandated takeovers have been disastrously unsuccessful, and the state itself has left the district woefully underfunded (low test scores did not lead the state to target resources to aid the district). Bad charter laws have striped them of funding they could not spare, and returned results that seem no better…. The district’s story is complicated… but the lesson is simple. When a district is segregated, abandoned, underfunded, and deprived of resources, it suffers. And when the state, rather than aiding it, allows it to be picked over and fed upon by private for-profit businesses, it suffers more, creating the possibility of a community that is no longer able to fulfill the promise of a free public education for all of its children.”
This is the story of one Pennsylvania school district. But the story of a state experimenting with state takeovers and charter management companies and a state failing to provide help for Its poorest school districts is about more than Pennsylvania. What Greene describes is also the story of Rick Snyder’s school district emergency managers in Michigan—the story of Benton Harbor, Muskegon Heights, and Highland Park. It is the story of the Ohio state takeovers of Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland. It is the story of charter school expansion in Gary, Indiana. It is the New Jersey story of decades of school district takeovers in Paterson and Newark and Camden. It is the story of state governments looking for cheap, trendy ways to shed responsibility for educating the Black and Brown children in America’s poorest and most racially segregated communities. It is also the story of charter school entrepreneurs who profit from power and political connections at the expense of poor children.