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Charter Schools A Flashpoint In School Board Debate

PPS Board debate.png
Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
PPS board candidates debate on April 7, 2021.

The first public debate between candidates for the Pittsburgh Public Schools Wednesday evening was a relatively sedate affair, made only mildly contentious by the fact that three of the candidates have children who attended charter schools.

Three incumbents and eight challengers took part in the three-hour-long forum, which was hosted by a coalition of progressive groups and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. Only District 9 incumbent Veronica Edwards did not participate.

Over the course of the evening, the 11 candidates frequently acknowledged they were echoing each other on many subjects. But a discussion of charters — public schools that receive public tax dollars but operate independently of the city district’s administration and board — provided a rare moment of contention.

“The chasms that we create between charters and public schools are harmful to kids,” said Tracey Reed, who is challenging incumbent Terry Kennedy in District 5.

Reed, a former teacher who sits on the board of education advocacy group A+ Schools, noted that her own children had attended both public and charter schools. She also sits on the board of trustees for the City Charter High School Downtown, and said charters could be sources of innovation for other schools — if the district could overcome what she called an “adversarial relationship” to them.

Reed is one of five candidates on a slate endorsed by Black Women For a Better Education, which has been calling for broad reforms to the district. Khamil Scantling, who is running with the group’s support to replace District 7 outgoing board member Cynthia Falls, also said she has children in charter schools. Carlos Thomas, who is one of three candidates seeking the District 1 seat, also said his child attended a charter.

Incumbents expressed far more skepticism about charters, which districts must reimburse for each student they enroll. Those reimbursements cost Pittsburgh schools over $100 million a year.

District 1’s incumbent, board president Sylvia Wilson, flatly said, “The charter schools that we have are not innovative, so there is not [a novel approach] that school districts can … include.” Jamie Piotrowski, who is also competing for Falls’ District 7 seat, argued that charters “don’t have the same standards that traditional public schools do” when it comes to disclosing, or meeting standards for, student performance.

In fact, even those who supported charters agreed that they needed more oversight and accountability. And not every member of the Black Women slate supported charters. District 3 school board member Sala Udin, the slate’s lone incumbent, said he would favor at least a temporary halt on establishing charters.

Still, an audience member asked why voters should believe a candidate with children in charter schools would be dedicated to the district.

Scantling said her children were attending a charter with an African-centered curriculum: “That’s where they’ll get the most cultural enrichment, because PPS currently is failing Black children.” But her children would later move on to a district middle school, she said, and “it is incumbent on me to make sure that the district that I send them to school is up to very high standards.”

Otherwise, the debate was conspicuous for an absence of rancor on issues like school discipline: Candidates largely supported a ban on suspension for students in kindergarten through second grade, and expressed concern that the presence of school police could criminalize students.

Meanwhile, though there was little discussion of the possibility of future school closures, but there was praise for the district’s vocational Career and Technical Education programs.

Candidates also embraced the district’s “Community Schools,” a model in which school buildings serve the entire community to house social services and other programs. That was a popular position in a debate hosted by groups who backed expanding the use of the model.

District 1 hopeful Grace Higginbotham, for one, said “not only do I support them: I feel they are absolutely necessary.” While there are questions about whether the district can afford the program, she and Reed suggested that COVID recovery money could support social programs to keep them open.

While Black Women for a Better Education was launched amid concern about the district’s direction under superintendent Anthony Hamlet, his name barely surfaced during the evening’s discussion. Most criticism of him was by implication. In a discussion of district finances, for example, District 9 challenger Gene Walker observed that “We need to look at what happened over the last five years under the new administration that increased costs over $100 million. And where did those increases come from and what have they done for our students?”

Udin, a frequent Hamlet critic, agreed, saying he wouldn’t mind raising taxes “if I was confident [of] the strategic direction of the school district. … We don’t have that kind of strategic thinking right now.”

Candidates expressed concern that in a district where most students are Black, over 80 percent of teachers are white. But District 5 incumbent Terry Kennedy noted that “If you look at the racial make-up of students in education schools” from which teachers are recruited, “it’s very white. … You can’t hire people that aren’t there.” She and other candidates praised a Brashear High School “teaching academy” as a means of “growing our own” pool of future teachers.

Over the course of the evening, candidates also found time to advocated for their own priorities.

Lamont Frazier, who is challenging Udin in District 3, suggested that the district look to large nonprofits like UPMC as a source of revenue. Thomas, a chef, urged for more transparency in school menus: “Anybody who is eating something should know what they are eating,” he said.

The field also included what is no doubt one of the youngest candidates anywhere on the ballot: 18-year-old Delancey Walton, a first-year student at Duquesne University who is also running in District 9.

“I am here [to] be the student voice,” she said.

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