“I don’t want that for my kids. I want better,” said Kenrick, who attended college for a few months before dropping out to care for Sa’Rodge. If he didn’t get the right kind of education, she worried, he would “end up dead or in jail.”
Kenrick settled on a charter school, Young Scholars of McKeesport, which impressed her because it taught students two foreign languages — Spanish and Turkish. The debate over charter schools has long dominated public discourse and has, in recent years, grown more fiercely partisan.
But politics never crossed Kenrick’s mind as she weighed her choices.
On Saturday, in a downtown convention hall not far from Kenrick’s home in the Hill District, seven Democratic presidential candidates are set to take the stage in an education forum organized by teachers unions and civil rights groups, where candidates are expected to be asked about charter schools. Teachers unions have led the opposition to charter schools because they say the privately run but publicly funded campuses lack accountability and take critical resources away from traditional public schools.
The political discourse is far removed from the conversation taking place over dinner tables where families of color, whose children disproportionately attend school districts with scant resources, have sought to escape schools they believe will fail their kids. They cannot afford to wait, they say, for politicians to create a system that works for them.
Dionna Rojas, the mother of a teenager, lives in Wilkinsburg, which shuttered its high school in 2016 because of low test scores and low enrollment. Now, the community sends students across city lines to a school in Pittsburgh. She worried about the education her son would receive at the school that draws from some of the city’s most troubled neighborhoods.
She ended up sending her son, who had been attending a charter, to a Catholic school. “Do we sacrifice our kids until someone gets it together?”
Charter schools long enjoyed bipartisan support. They were championed by Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who picked Arne Duncan, a reliable charter school ally, as his education secretary.
That era has ended. Near the end of Obama’s term, the NAACP called for a moratorium on charters. And President Trump’s appointment of Betsy DeVos, a Michigan billionaire who poured her fortune into expanding charter schools and school voucher programs, has galvanized public education advocates fighting charter school expansion.
Last year, three Democratic governors campaigning on pledges to halt the expansion of charter schools won elections. Among the original eight candidates who were to speak Saturday, only Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) is an outspoken supporter of charters. Booker canceled late Friday because of the flu, his campaign manager said.
There are few places where school districts have felt the growing pains of charters more acutely than in Pennsylvania, a state that is among the most inequitable when it comes to funding among districts. Critics say charters, which often set up shop in low-income districts, exacerbate the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
In Allegheny County, many charters that put down roots in struggling communities southeast of Pittsburgh are outperforming traditional public schools, even though a significant share of their students come from impoverished households. But their success comes at great expense to local school districts that underwrite the charter schools their students attend.
For politicians, the charter school debate can be rendered in high-minded language. For families and the communities where they live, it’s about the daily quest to secure a good education.
In the communities lining the Monongahela River, southeast of Pittsburgh, old mill towns declined with the collapse of the steel industry. Residents and businesses left, decimating the tax base and reducing communities to poverty.
Under state law, school districts are required to pay tuition for children who decamp to charter schools, cutting monthly checks. The tuition is based on a rough calculation of what districts spend on their own students, but public schools say the amount is exorbitant, and beyond what charter schools need to operate. Cyber charter schools, with little in the way of facility costs, are paid just like bricks-and-mortar campuses.
Clairton, where more than 90 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, sends nearly 15 percent of its budget — about $2.2 million — to charter schools. That does not include transportation costs the district is required to cover for charter students — even though the district cannot afford buses for its own students. Poor districts such as Clairton bear the brunt of charter school expenses, because students from wealthier districts have little incentive to leave their schools.
“What’s going to happen? We’ll be out of money in a year or so,” said Superintendent Ginny Hunt. “I’ve been able to keep us solvent by cutting everything. There’s nothing left to cut.”
The district has attempted to merge with neighboring systems, including West Jefferson Hills, where the median household income is more than double that in Clairton. The difference in school spending between the districts is so vast that it caught the attention of researchers, who concluded that the funding gap was the fourth largest among contiguous school districts in the country.
West Jefferson Hills said no. This year, when students in Clairton returned to a century-old building not renovated since the 1980s, high school students in the neighboring district began classes in a $95 million building. The new Thomas Jefferson High was designed to evoke Monticello, Jefferson’s mansion.
Across the river, in McKeesport, schools Superintendent Mark P. Holtzman Jr. has viewed the two charter schools in his city with increasing trepidation, including Young Scholars, which attempted to buy an abandoned school building from the district. Officials rejected the offer, even though Young Scholars promised far above the asking price.
“If, in fact, they got their hands on this property, it would really sink us financially,” Holtzman said.
Holtzman, a McKeesport graduate, said rising charter expenses have forced the school board to repeatedly raise taxes on residents and businesses. His district educates some of the county’s neediest students, including those from a residential center that houses foster children and students in trouble with the law.
But rising charter school expenses have meant the delay of important maintenance projects, like repairing the middle school’s foundation or upgrading the stadium, which sprouts worrisome leaks when it rains. The high school has had to cut so many electives that many seniors leave school early because there are no classes for them.
Students at McKeesport Area High are keenly aware of what school would be like if the city were wealthier — they see what it looks like when they pass through affluent schools for activities. Their school does not have enough laptops, and existing computers are outdated, making it difficult to access online class materials.
Even so, they struggle to understand why people would not want to attend their school, which they describe as welcoming, warm and close-knit. For students grappling with difficult upbringings, it’s a refuge.
“School is more a safe haven for some people,” said Aundre Robinson, a junior and the highest-ranked member of the school’s ROTC program. “It’s the only place where some kids eat throughout the day. It’s the only place where they don’t get yelled at and screamed at for something.”
Young Scholars of McKeesport sits in an old parochial school attached to a church in the city. For certain parents, the charter school is a refuge from a broken public school system rigged against their children. Students at the school come mostly from African American and low-income families.
This month, teachers gave one-on-one lessons to students in the hallway because the school has run out of classroom space. The school’s volleyball club practiced in a gym where temporary walls had been built to create small classrooms.
Despite the cramped confines, Kelleka Snipe said she wouldn’t dream of sending her children to their neighborhood school, even though it’s a little more than a block from the home she’s renting in Duquesne, just north of McKeesport. “That’s a failing school district,” Snipe said, incredulously.
That school district has long struggled academically and financially. Its high school closed in 2007 because of persistently low test scores. It later lost its middle school. The district is on the upswing, with rising test scores and growing enrollment. This summer, it went door to door to woo parents back.
Snipe was not impressed. She said her daughters were given work below their grade level when they attended there. Snipe and other parents like her believe charter schools provide a workaround to a system that would otherwise confine them to schools lacking resources. And she has no faith that Democrats or Republicans can fix things. She hasn’t voted since 2008, when she cast her ballot for Obama. “Somebody’s failing these kids, and no one’s answering for it,” Snipe said.