Jonathan Cetel is the founding executive director of PennCAN. He lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

PennCAN is just over a week old, and we’ve wasted no time generating buzz around our 2012 policy goals. It’s especially exciting to see how quickly our push to expand high-quality choices for Pennsylvania families has gained traction.

We started with a mobile billboard.


The day PennCAN launched, this billboard drove around the streets of Harrisburg for eight hours, turning heads and eliciting thumbs-up from passers-by. The visual metaphor in this billboard says it all. There is a greater demand for charter schools than there is a supply, and by not expanding high-performing charter schools, the Commonwealth is essentially closing the door on the 30,000 families on the waiting list. 

Pennsylvania is a big diverse state, and brick and mortar charter schools right now are mostly concentrated in a few cities. Lots of legislators – including ones on the education committee – don’t have any charter schools in their district.  For a comprehensive charter bill to pass, these legislators need to understand that failing schools hurt all Pennsylvanians. High-performing charter schools in cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Chester and Duquesne, Lancaster and Allentown, will produce citizens who make Pennsylvania a stronger, healthier and more competitive state. 

I am fortunate to have experienced schools that work, and it’s fueled my conviction that we can get this right. Today so much of the narrative about the state of urban education is failure. It’s easy to see failing public schools as a chronic condition of urban living, much like noise pollution or mice. It’s just always going to be there. 

But schools like KIPP are proving that isn’t the case.  They’re teaching the kids so many wrote off as “unteachable”—the ones on the wrong side of Pennsylvania’s achievement gap.  We must create an environment in which these remarkable schools can thrive and reach more of the kids that need them the most. We owe it to them, their students and the 30,000 families still waiting to get in.

Of course, passing legislation is a political process, which means nothing can be accomplished without compromise.  Issues that impact a system that affects everyone will also have folks on both sides of the aisle who are unwilling to make any concessions, but effective leaders never let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  

Consider another issue that impacts practically everyone: healthcare.  President Obama is often criticized by his base on the Left for failing to get a single-payer system into his healthcare bill. His compromises are seen as weaknesses. But guess what? He passed a healthcare bill in the face of enormous political opposition, accomplishing what had eluded every president of the latter half of the 20th century. As the eloquent Vice President Biden said, it was a “big f—ing deal.”

Well, passing a charter bill that expands high-quality choices by establishing an independent authorizer, a performance matrix and a commission to study equitable funding would also be a “big f—ing deal” for the 30,000 families on the waiting list.  I’m ready to get back to work to make it happen.  I hope you’ll join me.

Jonathan Cetel is the founding executive director of PennCAN: The Pennsylvania Campaign for Achievement Now. Visit for more information on how you can join Pennsylvania’s new movement to provide great schools for all. 



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