The School Reform Commission, after six years of mostly tepid oversight, made moves this spring first to terminate underperforming charter schools and then to consider using new charters more proactively to address the District's educational needs.
The latter proposal especially, which comes as the SRC struggles with continuing budget deficits, has riled charter school advocates and operators who want continued autonomy in deciding why and where these independent public schools are established.
"The charter movement has nothing to do with partnership with the District to achieve their needs," said Tim Daniels, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Charter Schools. "It has everything to do with partnership with parents to achieve their needs. The basic premise of a charter is choice."
Daniels said that he did not have a problem with stricter accountability for poorly performing and scandal-ridden charters.
The SRC voted in April not to renew the charters of Germantown Settlement Charter and Renaissance Charter, both middle schools in Northwest Philadelphia that have had financial and academic issues. In the six years of its existence, the SRC has never closed a charter school.
In addition, it put off a vote on the Philadelphia Academy Charter School in Northeast Philadelphia in the wake of a worsening financial scandal. The Philadelphia Inquirer disclosed mismanagement, nepotism, and conflicts of interest involving PACS founder Brien Gardiner and his handpicked CEO, Kevin O'Shea. Gardiner and O'Shea have been dismissed and the 1,200-student school is restructuring in an effort to win renewal.
The two charters that the SRC voted to terminate have an opportunity to make their case at public hearings, Germantown Settlement on June 4 and Renaissance on June 6. After that, there is a 30-day public comment period before the SRC makes its final decision.
Since there is a state appeals process, it is likely that the charters could stay open through next year even if the SRC upholds the terminations.
The 13 charter schools that were renewed in April all had conditions attached, as the District signaled stricter enforcement over whether charters were hiring certified and qualified teachers, using proper financial controls, and monitoring conflict-of-interest policies for employees and board members.
At the same time, the District has not approved any new charters since 2006, although five new charters opened this year and two more will start in September. Eleven successfully went through a screening process in 2007 but were deferred. This year, four more applicants made it through, for a total of 15 waiting for the SRC go-ahead.
But at the May 14 SRC meeting, Catherine Balsley, director of the District's Office of Charter Schools, recommended that the SRC delay voting on these schools and instead incorporate charter development into a more "holistic" school-reform strategy.
This made sense, she said, given current conditions: a new CEO about to take over, continuing budget problems, 70 poorly performing District schools requiring intervention under federal law, and "tremendous" growth in charter enrollment.
Balsley asked for "a more strategic plan