MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Pennsylvania's worst performing school district is facing a state takeover. It's also poised to become one of the nation's largest urban school systems, where public education is provided entirely by private charter companies. As Emily Previti reports, it's a drastic response to the dire situation in the city of York.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Save my school. Save my school.
EMILY PREVITI, BYLINE: High school senior Ashlee DeSantis protested outside nearly every hearing on the state's petition to take over her struggling school district.
ASHLEE DESANTIS: So this is to show anybody that's driving by, the chief recovery officer, anybody in the community, to show them that we actually do care. We care about our school. We love our school. And we love public school. We don't want receivership to happen here.
PREVITI: They might love their school, but its standardized test scores are the worst of all 500 public school districts in Pennsylvania. Eighty-four percent of York students live in impoverished households, and the city's stagnant tax base largely caused the financial problems at the heart of the state's takeover bid.
York school officials are fighting the court decision to approve a state receivership, but if it stands, the state will turn over the school system to Charter Schools USA, a for-profit company with 70 schools in seven states. They are a very few all-charter districts in the U.S., and York would be one of the largest. Rand Quinn is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's graduate school of education. He says controversy in these scenarios is almost unavoidable.
RAND QUINN: We can almost expect contention regardless of what these choices are and how well thought out and deliberate and reasonable they may seem.
PREVITI: York already has a handful of charter schools, and results are mixed. Some of York's existing charter schools post better standardized test scores than the district, but the highest performance comes from a school with students from two suburban districts as well as the city. Another charter with the worst scores later closed. Quinn says that's how it's supposed to work.
QUINN: There's this idea of competition and innovation and choice that's embedded in the logic of this method of reform. The good schools and the good teachers thrive, and the underperforming schools and underperforming teachers are removed from the system.
PREVITI: Charter Schools USA will have to meet performance standards or face losing its charter, but the contract isn't final yet. And incoming Governor Tom Wolf hasn't said what he'll do if it's finalized before his term starts. Wolf opposes privatizing public education, but he doesn't have another plan for York. Wolf has promised school funding formula changes, and they would affect the district, but any impacts would be delayed. Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller says York school officials have moved too slowly for years.
TIM ELLER: The board's continued delay in taking action just further delays the recovery process of taking place and further impacts the students.
PREVITI: But critics say the state is just rushing to bring Charter Schools USA to York before Wolf takes office. For NPR News, I'm Emily Previti.
BLOCK: This story comes from Keystone Crossroads. It's a statewide public media initiative reporting on the challenges facing Pennsylvania cities.
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