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Posted at 08:57 PM ET, 09/05/2012

The sad, sad school district Michelle Obama mentioned

Early in her triumphant speech at the Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama spoke about “the very best of the American spirit” and
(Charlie Neibergall/AP)
praised a school district but did not mention it by name. That district is Chester Upland in Pennsylvania, and, unfortunately, it is in the direst of straits. School reform efforts — including opening charter schools — have done nothing but sink the district into deeper trouble.

First, here’s what Michelle Obama said Tuesday night:

...Over the past few years as first lady, I have had the extraordinary privilege of traveling all across this country. And everywhere I’ve gone, in the people I’ve met, and the stories I’ve heard, I have seen the very best of the American spirit. I have seen it in the incredible kindness and warmth that people have shown me and my family, especially our girls. I’ve seen it in teachers in a near-bankrupt school district who vowed to keep teaching without pay.

She was referring to a time early this year when unionized teachers and other district employees, including bus drivers and cafeteria aides, agreed to work for free in Chester Upland, west of Philadelphia, because there wasn’t enough money in the district coffers to meet the payroll.

When this act of kindness became news in January, Michelle Obama invited a Chester Upland teacher to sit with her at President Obama’s State of the Union address.

But things have gone bad to worse since then in the small district, which has one high school, one STEM magnet high school program, two middle schools and four elementary schools, and has been under control of the state government for 16 of the last 18 years.

Students who live in the district can also go to one of the several charter schools, which include on-line charters. About 45 percent of the district’s students go to charter schools, including the state’s largest. Some of the charter schools perform better than the traditional public schools in the district, and some worse — so they are no panacea.

Chester Upland is one of the poorest districts in Pennsylvania — more than 70 percent of its students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches — more than twice the state average — and it has been struggling mightily, academically and financially, for years.

Early this year it found itself with massive layoffs, including that of the acting superintendent and the assistant acting superintendent. Though money was found to pay its employees, the latest news, according to the Philadelpha Inquirer, is that the state appointed a “recovery” officer who is charged with coming up with a plan to save the district.

As Diane Ravitch wrote on her blog, the officer, Joe Watkins, is a prominent advocate for vouchers and charters, having worked as a consultant to the charter school already in the district that is allocated one-third of the district’s budget.

Not so incidentally, the owner of the company that runs the largest charter school in the state is Gov. Tom Corbett’s biggest campaign contributor, and he collects $15 million annually to manage the charter school, Ravitch wrote.

A Philadelphia Inquirer editorial slammed the state’s moves in Chester Upland, saying,

If the latest attempt by the state Department of Education to rescue the ailing Chester Upland School District sounds familiar, there's a reason for that.
The state has been there, done that, and failed miserably. Now it wants another crack at running the Delaware County district. Please, find a better idea to give these children the adequate education they are entitled to....
Corbett’s appointment of Joe Watkins as the district’s recovery officer also suggests what he’s up to. Watkins, chairman of the Students First voucher PAC, has an impressive resume as a businessman, minister, and television commentator. But he has no record turning around failing schools.

Will traditional public schools survive in Chester Upland? Don’t hold your breath.

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By  |  08:57 PM ET, 09/05/2012

 
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