Why does the District want to turn over Munoz-Marin to the charter school operator ASPIRA? Until this year, Renaissance schools, schools selected for conversion to charter schools, were the lowest performing schools based mostly on PSSA test scores. But Munoz-Marin is not one of the lowest performing schools. It was selected because ASPIRA wants it as a feeder school for Olney high which it also operates. It manages both Stetson and Olney as well as its own charters. Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn told the Inquirer, “We see these charter providers as our partners…we wanted to ensure that the charter operators who are doing the conversions were comfortable with the kinds of schools they felt they could be successful with.” It is the needs of the charter school companies that come first.
Why should parents care if the school is run by a charter or as a regular public school? Charter schools are privately managed but funded by tax payer dollars. They are not accountable or open in the way that public schools are. The District has only a small staff monitoring charters and the charter school only comes up for renewal every five years. In the case of Renaissance charters their contracts have no time limitation. Given this, it is not surprising that corruption and mismanagement are serious problems with charters. The Inquirer reports at least 18 area charters have been subjects of federal investigations since 2008.
But isn’t ASPIRA different? ASPIRA has a proud history as an organization that has advocated for the Latino community. But since making the decision to become a large scale charter operator ASPIRA looks more and more like a business and less like a community organization. ASPIRA has a 23 million dollar investment in real estate and substantial mortgage debt. According to City Paper reporter Dan Denvir, ASPIRA Inc. of Pennsylvania owed large sums of money to four Philadelphia charter schools it runs, according to an independent audit of the organization’s finances. Denvir wrote “the nonprofit was running a deficit of $722,949 as of last June and owed the publicly financed schools $3.3 million.” That’s tax payer money that isn’t going into classrooms and schools.
ASPIRA’s treatment of it’s teachers is another sign that it has turned its back on its mission. Antonia Pantoja, ASPIRA’s founder, was a strong union supporter who believed unions were necessary to fight discrimination. But now ASPIRA is fighting the efforts of teachers at Olney high to organize a union. Last year, the Daily News reported that Olney High School had paid $17,094 to a law firm to advise it on how to keep the union out. The National Labor Relations Board has found merit in charges that teachers were “threatened” and “interrogated” by school administrators for union activity.
What happens to the Munoz-Marin staff if it becomes a charter? All the staff would have to reapply for their jobs. Only half could be rehired. In most cases few staff are rehired and many do not want to work for charters that are non-union. Teachers who chose not to reapply will remain District employees and will be eligible for positions in other schools depending on availability and seniority.
But don’t ASPIRA’s schools do a better job? If we only look at standardized test scores we find that ASPIRA does better at Stetson than Marin in Math but Marin has higher reading scores. But test scores aren’t the only guide to how well a school is doing. Munoz-Marin, in spite of harmful budget cutbacks, has important strengths including a dedicated staff of teachers and administrators. The school, with a high percentage of bi-lingual staff, is strongly committed to English Language Learners. It also has a strong special education program. These are both areas where charter operators frequently fall short. With more supports Munoz-Marin could build on this foundation and be a successful, public, community school.