by Benjamin Herold
for the Notebook and WHYY/NewsWorks
Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission renewed all five charters up for consideration Friday, but not before a sometimes brusque debate among the commissioners about the growing cost to the District of expanding charter enrollment.
Friday’s renewals and modifications added more than 1,600 charter seats to the District at a projected cost of $40 million over five years. District officials were not immediately able to provide an overview of the total number of charter seats added during this year’s renewal and modification process or how much those new seats are projected to cost.
High-profile charters including Mastery-Pickett, KIPP West Philadelphia, and Boys' Latin were among those renewed on Friday.
“I’m just happy it happened,” said David Hardy, CEO of Boys' Latin in West Philadelphia, which was granted 320 new seats and the right to add 6th, 7th, and 8th grades to its high school program.
“We’ve been waiting a long time for it, and we think we’re ready for it.”
Also at the meeting, officials from Hope Charter, one of three earlier recommended for closure by the SRC, announced that they would not appeal and that the school would close at the end of the 2013 school year. Hope was established for at-risk students.
After some contentious dialogue among the commissioners, First Philadelphia Preparatory Charter in Frankford also had its charter renewed – and was approved for Friday’s single largest expansion, 1,150 new seats.
Despite calling First Philadelphia “clearly a terrific school,” Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky voted against its renewal and expansion, arguing that the size of the recommended seat increase was too expensive and akin to approving an entirely new school.
“Instead of adding 1,000 seats at enormous cost to the District, I’d love to see you next year coming back for a Renaissance School,” Dworetzky told First Philadelphia’s founders, who also run Tacony Academy Charter and who were recently awarded management of Jones Middle School through the Renaissance process.
Commissioners Lorene Cary and Wendell Pritchett voted in favor of First Philadelphia’s renewal and expansion, but voiced similar concerns about cost.
Clearly frustrated, Chairman Pedro Ramos pointedly voted, “Yes, without reservation.”
Earlier in the meeting, District Deputy for Strategic Programs Thomas Darden said it costs the District roughly $7,000 per student, per year to add a seat to a traditional charter school. Dworetzky called that a “best-case” estimate.
Dworetzky, the chair of the SRC’s “Choice, Rightsizing and Turnaround” committee, then argued that converting low-performing schools to Renaissance charters is a wiser strategy. Darden said that approach costs the District roughly $800 to $1,000 additional per student, per year, and Dworetzky noted that wholesale charter conversions don’t “slowly bleed” students out of District schools, leaving stranded costs behind.
“If we don’t consider cost, we’re not doing our job,” he said.
Ramos responded that part of the cost of adding charter seats is the District’s fault for not better managing declining enrollment over the past 10 years.
After the meeting, City Chief Education Officer Lori Shorr said that figuring out a way to accurately calculate the cost-benefit ratio of adding charter seats is of critical importance. Shorr said she does “not have total faith” in the accuracy of the $7,000 per student, per year figure being used by the District for adding traditional charter seats, but expressed support for Dworetzky’s argument.
“I think we need to grow the capacity of folks who can do Renaissance [turnarounds], because [that] does have less of an immediate financial impact on the District,” said Shorr.
“You’re really just moving the adults out.”
Money wasn’t the only factor brought up by the SRC before Friday’s vote.
Two of the schools approved for renewal without expansion, KIPP West Philadelphia and Tacony Academy, both had low School Performance Index (SPI) scores of 8 out of a possible 10.
KIPP CEO Marc Manella called his school’s scores the result of an “off year.” Though he had requested an additional 400 seats at KIPP West, the District’s charter office recommended renewal without expansion because of the school’s “mixed results.”
The commissioners also grilled several of the charter operators on the percentage of special education students served at their schools and about “barriers to entry” for enrollment, including confusing application packets and requests that families disclose their child’s disabilities before applying.
But ultimately, Dworetzky's “no” on First Philadelphia was the day’s lone dissenting vote, and the commissioners took pains to praise the charter operators in attendance for their schools’ strong performance.
Noting the dramatic before-and-after test score results at Mastery-Pickett, a former District middle school converted to a “neighborhood charter” in 2007, Dworetzky had a simple message for Mastery CEO Scott Gordon:
“Keep it up.”