NewsThe 74 Interview

74 Interview: Philly’s U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans on Charters, Trump, and School Revitalization

By Carolyn Phenicie | September 18, 2017

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

See previous 74 interviews, including 2017 Teacher of the Year Sydney Chaffee, former education secretary John King, and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. The full archive is here.

It’s been a long time since Rep. Dwight Evans was a freshman.

After more than three decades in the Pennsylvania House of Representative, Evans came to Congress late last year after winning a special election.

Though he sits on the Agriculture and Small Business committees, Evans’s first bill touches on education: HR 922 would make schools eligible for historic building rehabilitation tax credits.

The 63-year-old Evans, who taught in Philadelphia before his election to the state House of Representatives at age 26, helped start a charter school in Philadelphia, the West Oak Lane Charter School. It has a longer school day and year. It became the first unionized charter in Pennsylvania; the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers represents its faculty.

He helped open West Oak Lane in 1998, he said, to stop the bleed of families moving out of the city to take advantage of better schools in the suburbs.

“What I was attempting to do was to give a constructive alternative,” he said.

Evans, a Democrat, beat longtime representative Chaka Fattah, then facing federal corruption charges, in an upset in the 2016 primary. Fattah was convicted two months later and resigned after threat of expulsion by the House. Evans won both the special and regular elections to fill the seat, and began serving in November 2016.

Evans, who supported charter schools and a tax credit scholarship during his 36 years in the Pennsylvania House, spoke recently to The 74 in his Washington, D.C., office, just as tempers in the education world were flaring over efforts to tie vouchers to school segregation and the NAACP’s report on charter schools.

The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The 74: During your time in the Pennsylvania legislature, you supported charter schools. Why?

Evans: I supported it because I felt like we had to try to meet the needs of the kids in that community and give parents that option available to them. It’s not anything different than President Clinton, President Obama. They, too, supported [charters]. Unfortunately I think it has turned into, unfairly, somewhat of a partisan issue, when it shouldn’t be that way. It should be about putting the kids and the parents first.

… Education is very important to our democracy. The more informed voters that you have, the better it is for a democracy. When you have a citizen that’s engaged and knows what’s taking place, that is extremely important, and we should not minimize that aspect of the direct connection of public education to promoting democracy. That, sometimes, I think is lost …

When I talked about charter schools, not that it cured and solved everything in my view, it was part of the modernization that we operate in the 21st century. Are there good charter schools?  Yes. Are there bad charter schools? Yes. Not all have necessarily worked the way they should, but if you talk to those parents and those kids, Philadelphia has one of the largest charter communities in the nation … That came from the bottom up, not from the top down.

You also supported a tax credit scholarship program in Pennsylvania. Is that something you think should be expanded to the federal level?

I backed that because, again, that was along the lines of what I was doing with the charter schools. I found that there were some schools that basically were providing the needs. I’m not one that thinks all sizes fit for every single child.

I cannot say to you [it should be expanded] at the national level, because basically education is a state responsibility. It says in the Pennsylvania constitution that we are to provide thorough and efficient [education.] To my knowledge, it doesn’t say it in the United States Constitution.

Do I think that there are some things you can do at the national level [on education]? The answer is yes, like school modernization, special education, teacher investment, teacher recruitment …

There’s been a lot of conflict in the education world lately, including the pending NAACP report on charter schools and efforts by [American Federation of Teachers President] Randi Weingarten and others to tie school vouchers to school segregation. What do you think?

… I tend to stay away from the name-calling and stuff, because this is all about kids and parents. They want what works, and it varies community by community what works. It varies state by state, country by country. A lot of it has to do with the education, the culture of do we value education. I think that teachers and principals should be our first responders, and I think that they should be paid properly … I think that that’s extremely essential in terms of what’s taking place. We need to take a look at what works, that’s kind of where I come down on it.

How would you grade President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos so far on education?

Not very well, in my view, because they don’t seem like they have a clear vision of what it is they want to do.

Like it or not, [President] George Bush with [Massachusetts Democratic Sen.] Ted Kennedy and [California Democratic Rep.] George Miller came up with No Child Left Behind …Then you had Race to the Top, which came by the Obama administration …

What this administration to me hasn’t demonstrated is its ability to coalesce the parties to work on, not a divided approach, but an approach that works for all of the kids. To my knowledge, I haven’t seen that. I’ve been here, what, seven, eight months? I haven’t seen that kind of vision and direction. As a matter of fact, it’s been very divisive in terms of their approach. Now, if you could take what George Bush did and what Barack Obama did around education, that’s the model I think you have right there.

One of the bills you’ve introduced concerns school building rehabilitation. What’s in that bill, and why focus on this issue?

It builds on the concept that the president used himself when he took an old post office and used the prior use provision that was in the tax reform bill of 1986 … They used the rehabilitation tax credit to rebuild a public building [the Old Post Office Building] to make it a hotel [Trump Hotel in D.C.]. I think that that same provision should be used for public buildings. If it was used for the old post office to be used in a commercial [capacity], why not use that in public school buildings and make that available? I think it is something that Democrat and Republican could get behind. It’s a very simple concept …

In the city of Philadelphia, because I know that better than anywhere, the cost of renovating the school buildings is $5 billion …

Roosevelt Junior High School, named after Teddy Roosevelt, was built in 1922. I don’t know about you, but [I think] anything that’s been around since 1922 needs a little modernization, needs a little upgrade … Right down the street … there’s [a campus of] the Wissahickon Charter School, [which] came online in 2015. Brand-new building, brand-new facility… and next to Wissahickon Charter School, you have a supermarket. So from the leverage of the charter school, you have the supermarket, you have that synergy. Right up the street you have Roosevelt Junior High School, [built in] 1922. So what option do you think parents are going to want of the choices available to them?

That to me is a perfect example of something that’s being done from the bottom up, not from the top down. That’s what I think is different in terms of the Trump administration not fully understanding that there’s a lot of things that have been working with Democrat and Republican. Pennsylvania’s a perfect example. I worked very closely with Gov. [Tom] Ridge when we did the charter school law, and he’s a Republican. As a Democrat, I worked with him, because it was about the kids. I think we’ve got to get away from the adult food fights …

…You haven’t heard anything about school modernization, you haven’t heard it on the [Trump] agenda. They talk about roads and bridges and stuff, but they don’t talk about school modernization. School modernization is directly connected to economic growth …

If there’s something the government can do, that I believe is bipartisan, it’s school modernization. You don’t even hear the administration talk about that. I introduced that bill, I think, in February. I had only been here for almost two months. It’s in the Ways and Means Committee …

You’re talking to me, but I’ve had no conversations with them, and isn’t that amazing? …

Are there other things the federal government could do to improve education on a bipartisan basis?

I think around special ed is a huge need, make sure that funding is proper for special education. I mentioned to you about teacher recruitment … You could do things around principals …

You notice you have not heard this president in six months … do anything that was concentrated on raising [awareness of] the level of the need around public education. You haven’t heard any major speech of that nature. George Bush, whatever you want to say, sort of ran like an education president, talking about compassion. Barack Obama, through his secretary of education, talked about Race to the Top ….

Since the president likes to talk about winning all the time, let’s win with something that everybody can agree with, in my view, is the issue about education …

It’s been about 15 years since the start of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission. How would you rate progress in schools in Philly?

I still think it’s a work in progress. I don’t think it’s been perfect …

The challenge for the city of Philadelphia, like any urban area, is we have a not-fair funding system … There’s a difference between equity and adequacy in education. When the public school systems were created, remember something, you’re talking about a school system that was created over 100 years ago. It was based on property tax … Obviously, you’re going to have an unequal system.

… That’s a larger issue if you want to talk about how do we fund public education to make sure that we close the economic gap. How the economic gap exists is on the basis of kids who go into environments where they don’t have the same as kids in some other environments. In Pennsylvania we talk about, in the city of Philadelphia and the suburbs, you see a huge difference in terms of how schools are funded. I represent Philadelphia and I represent the Main Line [a cluster of wealthy suburbs]. Just across City Avenue, you see a difference in how our schools are operating.

If the federal government can do anything, they can do something about trying to attempt to equalize funding. That’s unheard of.

I’ll give you a perfect example. In the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, mass transit did not have a predictable funding base. It was a former congressman by the name of Bill Gray, who sat in this same seat, who came up with a mechanism that drove an incentive to force the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to come up with a predictable funding base. It drove the locals to decide how to fund transit. I would argue the same thing needs to happen in public education …

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