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Amid charter growth and fraud charges, city leaders consider overhaul of District office




By Benjamin Herold for the Notebook and WHYY/NewsWorks

Even as federal investigators were finalizing a massive fraud indictment against one of Philadelphia’s most prominent charter school operators, the School Reform Commission was moving thousands of students and hundreds of millions of dollars into the city's publicly funded charter sector. 

It’s a massive gamble, made riskier by the meager staffing in the School District’s Office of Charter Schools. Currently, 80 independently managed Philadelphia charters serving more than 50,000 students are monitored by just six people – a number that observers on all sides of the heated charter school debate agree is woefully inadequate.

“It’s not a good recipe for accountability,” says Mark Gleason, the executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP), a two-year-old nonprofit organization that has been leading the push to expand the city’s supply of “high-quality” charter seats.

How to overhaul and pay for a robust new charter office is one of the next big challenges facing city education leaders. Despite months of sporadic, mostly private, conversations, there is still no consensus.

The problem isn’t just limited capacity. 

While numerous Philadelphia charter operators have been taken into court on charges of fraud and other crimes, others have received national accolades for their impressive academic results and strong connection with parents. As a result, there remain sharp differences of opinion about the charter office’s basic purpose:

Should it be a watchdog, focused on regulating charters and holding them accountable?

Or should it be a guide dog, focused on supporting charters and helping them succeed and expand?

Lori Shorr, the city’s chief education officer, says that in order to be effective, the charter office needs to be both – especially if Philadelphia hopes to fend off state Republicans’ plans to create a statewide charter authorizing body that could turn the city’s public education system into a deregulated free-for-all.

“We’re trying hard to have a managed market of schools in Philadelphia,” said Shorr.

“Both charter operators and citizens have to have faith that [charters are] being monitored and supported well.”

A more charter-friendly charter office?

Figuring out how to strike that balance is proving tricky.

Last November, District and charter leaders, along with city and state officials, signed on to the Philadelphia Great Schools Compact, a joint pledge to replace 50,000 “low-performing seats” with better options.

The compact calls for the creation of a new Office of Charter Schools that would report directly to the SRC. Despite a July 1, 2012, deadline, that plan is still simmering on the back burner, on hold until the SRC can better define what its new “portfolio management” approach will look like and incoming Superintendent William Hite has a chance to weigh in.

But conversations about overhauling the charter office haven’t stopped.

In May, the Philadelphia School Partnership submitted on behalf of the Great Schools Compact a $7 million grant proposal to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

That proposal, which officials now describe as a preliminary draft, included a plan to raise millions of philanthropic dollars to “reimagine” the charter office so that charters like it more:

"Because a revamped charter office must be adequately staffed if it is to effectively support charters and rebuild trust, we request that a portion of the collaboration grant, $800,000, go toward setup and staffing costs... We will leverage the [Gates] Foundation’s funding with local philanthropic funds on at least a 1-to-1 matching basis, and preferably a 2-to-1 or 3-to-1 basis."

An extended “Outcomes & Milestones” section of the proposal lists only one indicator on which the success of the proposed charter office overhaul would be directly evaluated:

"Significant improvement in charters’ perceptions of charter office, as evidenced on charter-operator surveys."

That kinder, gentler approach to oversight is meant to appease charter operators, many of whom regard the District's charter office as hostile.

But with local headlines full of high-profile cases of charter corruption – most recently, Tuesday’s federal indictment of charter mogul June Brown, accused of a $6.5 million fraud related to three schools she helped found – many say that making the charter office more “charter-friendly” would be a huge step in the wrong direction.

"There are tremendous loopholes in the operation of charter schools that provide for financial abuses, profiteering, and unaccountability,” said City Controller Alan Butkovitz, whose office released a 2010 report blasting the District for lax charter oversight.

Supporting charter schools is fine, said Butkovitz, but it shouldn’t be the job of the same office charged with overseeing them. 

“There should be an accountability office whose independence is strictly guarded,” he said.

“We can’t afford to have any more scandals.”

Gleason, who submitted the Gates grant proposal on behalf of the compact, was vague when asked why that document is so heavily skewed toward addressing charter operators’ concerns and so silent on accountability.

“I don’t know if I have good answer on that, other than it was a collectively written document, edited many times, and in some cases key details may have been left out,” Gleason said.

Shorr, who chairs the compact’s coordinating committee, helped oversee the creation of the proposal. Yet she described its language about the charter office as “one-sided.”

“It is not my perspective, and I don’t think it’s the compact’s perspective, that we’re looking to make a charter-friendly charter authorizer,” Shorr said.

Both she and Gleason emphasized that the May proposal to the Gates Foundation has since undergone significant revisions.

The final grant proposal, expected by early August, will not include a request for funds for the charter office, they said. 

For whom, for what?

Whether it's part of the Great Schools Compact’s proposal to the Gates Foundation or not, revamping the charter office remains a priority for the compact’s members, including School Reform Commission Chairman Pedro Ramos.

Over the past four months, Ramos has voted consistently – and sometimes vocally – in favor of charter expansion, prodding the SRC to add more than 5,000 seats to the city’s charter sector at a projected cost of $139 million over five years.

But even Ramos says that if that bet is to pay off, the District’s charter office will need more capacity to make sure that charters address longstanding concerns about their financial transparency and willingness to educate all students.

If charters “don’t start acting more uniformly like public schools with public responsibility,” Ramos said, “it will be their Achilles’ heel, just as safety has been for the School District.”

Some charter operators, including Lawrence Jones, president of the board of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, say they welcome “fair, equitable, and transparent” oversight.

“We feel the best form of advocacy is to have high-quality charter schools.  And the best way to have high-quality charter schools is to have a high-quality [charter] authorizer,” said Jones, the CEO of Richard Allen Preparatory Charter in Southwest Philadelphia.

The SRC is now the only entity with the legal authority to create a new charter and to renew or revoke an existing charter. To make those decisions, the five-member volunteer commission relies heavily on the information and recommendations provided by the charter office.

But many charter operators, including Jones, believe strongly that the standards, processes, and sometimes even the data that come out of the charter office are inconsistent at best – and deeply flawed at worst.

It’s not about seeking a more friendly charter office, Jones said.

It’s about seeking an office that is fair and transparent, especially when it comes to high-stakes decisions like renewing a school's charter.

Jones likened an effective charter office to a good parent. 

“If I didn’t get in when the streetlights turned on, I knew what my dad was going to do,” he said.

“There was a clear, consistent expectation, and if I didn’t meet it, there was a consequence. So I met it. And there was peace in the valley.”

A threat from Harrisburg

SRC Chairman Ramos is also looking for predictability in the District's relationships with charters, especially when it comes to student enrollment.

In recent months, though, a number of major threats have emerged that could undermine the order -- and ability to plan -- that Ramos is seeking.

State courts recently upheld a 2011 Pennsylvania Department of Education ruling that the District had illegally imposed an enrollment cap on the Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter, potentially opening the door to unchecked expansion by existing charters.

And this June, the General Assembly came very close to passing charter reform legislation, some versions of which contained a provision that would allow the state to create its own charter authorizing body.

Such a statewide authorizer could approve new charter schools in Philadelphia regardless of whether the SRC – or Philadelphia citizens – want them.

“It would exacerbate what is already a difficult planning process,” said the city’s Shorr, who said it would be “beneficial to Philadelphia” for the SRC to remain the city’s sole charter authorizer.

But Gov. Corbett and Republican leaders in the state Senate intend to make a strong push in September to get charter reform legislation passed.

“The Governor has supported and will continue to support and advocate for the creation of a statewide authorizer,” wrote Department of Education spokesperson Timothy Eller.

And Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi “supports the idea and would like to see it happen,” said his spokesperson, Erik Arneson.

Within the Great Schools Compact, opinions are split. Despite the position of city and District officials, many charter operators, frustrated at the SRC’s unspoken freeze on granting new charters, support the state plan.

“I don’t think a second authorizer is a bad thing for Philadelphia,” said PSP’s Gleason, “but I recognize why it’s a bad thing for the District.”

More private money?

Whatever happens with the District’s charter office, somebody is going to have to pay for it.

With a $282 million shortfall already looming for next year, it’s not likely to be the District.

“At a time when you’re cutting everything else, to build an office that some sectors would see as helping privatization” would be a “tough sell,” acknowledged Shorr.

The alternative, though, is equally fraught with political peril.

The Great Schools Compact, in its May grant proposal to the Gates Foundation, projected that overhauling the charter office would cost $6 million over three years.  

Though that foundation is apparently no longer a target for possible philanthropic support, the idea of raising private money to pay for a new charter office remains very much alive.

Gleason of the Philadelphia School Partnership, whose organization helped fund the work of outside consultants on the SRC’s controversial “transformation blueprint,” says PSP might be able to help.

“We believe we could raise philanthropic funding to help do this,” Gleason said.

“We’re not actively fundraising for it, but we believe we could if asked.”

Ramos says that such a request, to PSP or elsewhere, is not out of the question.

“It can’t be anything that has any strings or conditions attached in any way.  But within those parameters, we would welcome the help,” Ramos said.

Officials said there’s no immediate timetable for making changes to the charter office.

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