As a New York City transplant, who is now a proud Pittsburgh resident, my instinct is to get defensive when any outside group criticizes my adopted city, especially when that group is some wonky DC think tank.

So when the Thomas B. Fordham Institute issued a report ranking Pittsburgh as one of the least “choice friendly” cities in the entire country, I wanted to disagree.  And sure, while I thought some points missed the mark, I ultimately found myself agreeing with the report’s core thesis:  Pittsburgh’s political climate is not hospitable to providing all students with access to more high-quality school options.

This lack of support was on display at the most recent Pittsburgh Public School board meeting where the board voted on amendments submitted by two different charter schools:

First, in a 9-0 vote, the school board, without any discussion, unanimously voted down the expansion of the Environmental Charter School (ECS), a high-performing school with high parent demand.  This year, ECS received over 200 applications for only 26 available slots in kindergarten and 500 applications for all grades.

The second amendment was from the Urban Academy of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School. With a student population that is 100 percent black and almost all low-income, the Urban Academy has the highest reading scores for black elementary students in the entire district.  Their efforts have resulted in the school not just closing the achievement gap, but actually reversing it (the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently profiled the Urban Academy to highlight their successes).

Urban Academy was simply seeking the board’s permission to move its school to a different building.  That’s it.  They were not looking to expand or change their academic model.  They simply needed to move.  And yet, four board members, including the newly appointed board chair, voted no.  With a 5-4 vote, the amendment barely squeaked by.

The irony is that while those in power are trying to limit educational choices for students, Pittsburgh families are exercising school choice in droves.  For example, at Westinghouse, one of the lowest-performing schools in Pittsburgh, almost 80 percent of students zoned for that school chose a different option.  Parents are desperate for better schools for their children. The problem is that we don’t have enough high quality options for them to chose from.

We need more Urban Academies. We need leadership that will do everything possible to support and grow great public schools, whether they are district or charter.

In the spirit of the new year and a clean slate, I could say something schmaltzy and ask everyone to put aside their political and philosophical differences, and work together in 2016 for what’s in the best interest of kids.  However, I know that’s unlikely.  Instead, this is what I’m proposing – in addition to your New Year’s resolution to eat better and exercise more, commit to making 2016 the year you become actively engaged in the fight to expand great schools and vigilantly hold our leaders accountable for the decisions they make.

Rachel is the Executive Director of Policy at PennCAN.


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