A tragic story is unfolding in Pennsylvania’s troubled Chester Upland School District, where a combination of drastic budget cuts, poor management, student attrition to charter schools and other factors have left the immediate future of the traditional public schools in doubt.

Here’s what’s going on, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer:

* Unionized teachers and others, including bus drivers and cafeteria aides, have agreed to work for free because there isn’t enough money to meet the payroll after today. How long they can do this is unclear.

* Some 40 percent of the system’s professional staff, and 50 people of its unionized support staff, have been laid off.

* The acting superintendent and assistant acting superintendent have been laid off too.

* Some families are leaving the area or sending their children to other schools, but about 3,650 remain behind in buildings that are crumbling and in need of repair

Chester Upland is a small district with one high school, two middle schools and six elementary schools. More than 70 percent of its students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches — more than twice the state average.

It has long been a troubled district, academically and in the way its finances have been managed. It was only in 2010 that the elected school board regained full control to manage its schools after a number of years of state involvement. Efforts to improve its chronically poor academic performance — including once bringing in a for-profit management company, Edison Schools — have failed.

Now about 45 percent of the district’s students go to two public charter schools schools, and 45 percent of the district’s total operating budget goes to two charter schools to pay to educate those children, according to the Inquirer.

(Both elementary charter schools in Chester Upland met requirements for No Child Left Behind last year, as did two traditional elementary schools. Three are in various levels of school improvement programs and another is listed as having been “warned” that it is in academic trouble.)

One of the charters, the Chester Community Charter School, is the largest charter in the state and is one of 89 schools in Pennsylvania under investigation for irregularities in scores on 2009 state standardized tests, it was reported on “the notebook” blog, which monitors public education.

The charter school was founded by a lawyer and entrepreneur named Vahan Gureghian, who also owns and runs a for-profit management company that has a contract with Chester Community Charter School to operate it. Gureghian, incidentally, is a big contributor to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, having given more than $300,000 to his campaign, which made him the largest single donor. Gureghian also served as an education advisor on Corbett’s transition team after his 2010 election victory.

Chester Upland gets nearly 70 percent of its annual funding from the state but lost almost 20 percent of its allotment because of severe budget cuts. According to the Inquirer, many of those cuts “came down hardest on poorer districts” like Chester Upland.

Corbett’s administration has declined to help, instead blaming the school system for its woes (as if that kind of blame game helps the kids any).

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s editorial board blames the state for the mess, writing:

“The latest meltdown in the Chester Upland school system is a sweeping indictment of the State Department of Education, which has allowed the Delaware County district to persistently remain one of the worst in Pennsylvania. ... This sorry state of affairs could have been avoided. The district, reeling from state budget cuts this fiscal year, made a reasonable appeal to the state for an $18.7 million advance payment of the state funding that it expects to receive in June. But the Corbett administration so far has refused to help. Instead, Education Secretary Ron Tamalis sent the district a letter in December that blamed it for its predicament. What Tomalis left out is the state's failure to take a stronger role in Chester Upland's finances before they got so far out of whack.”

Meanwhile, the two possible solutions to the mess that the Inquirer suggests are these: closing down the school system entirely and sending the children to other districts, or creating a system of public charter schools in which “almost all students” attend.


Why isn’t finding the money and expertise to fix it so all children can be served isn’t one of the alternatives?

Why do we assume charters are the answer when they have no better record nationally than traditional public schools.

It is a disgrace that an American school public school district is forced to depend on free labor from unionized teachers and staff to stay open.

Why the people in a position to fix this in Pennsylvania don’t get that is mystifying.

Follow The Answer Sheet every day by bookmarking http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet. And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our Higher Education page. Bookmark it!