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Where did the 4,000 lost students go? District says 1,500 in charters

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School District officials say that just over 1,500 students more than the number that they budgeted for are enrolled in charter schools this year, opening up a new $12 million to $15 million hole in its budget.

Spokesman Fernando Gallard said that the District was not prepared to say yet what steps it may take to close the gap.

The charter law requires the District to pay charters for each Philadelphia student enrolled. The District itself does not get money for those students from the state or the city on a per capita basis.

"We are closely monitoring the District's monthly revenues and expenditures to determine possible savings in order to meet the new cost estimates for charter schools," Gallard said. The District had already allocated 29 percent of its $2.4 billion operating budget, or $708 million, in payments to charter schools.

The 1,500 figure does not account for any additional students who may have moved into cyber charters. [UPDATE: Gallard said that as of October, there were 6,350 Philadelphia residents enrolled in cyber charter schools, about 400 more than last year. If  those numbers hold, Gallard said, the District will pay about $68 million to cybers, some $9 million more than in 2012-13.]

The new influx of students means that 60,175 Philadelphia students are now in brick-and-mortar charters, whereas the District had projected a count of 58,643. Charters now serve about a third of all Philadelphia public school students.

Superintendent William Hite said shortly after school opened that about 4,000 fewer students than anticipated had enrolled in District-run schools this year, which raised concerns for him as to where they went. The update on charter enrollment still leaves 2,500 of those unaccounted for. 

Gallard said that the District is still trying to track down all of them, but may not be able to do so. 

He explained that the District would know if a student had left the District entirely only based on a request from another district or private school for records and transcripts. Not all parents make that request, he said.

The District closed 24 schools this year, and many of their students and their families warned that they would not go to the new schools that the District had designated for them.

According to the District's chief financial officer, Matthew Stanski, the District pays each charter school its per-pupil allotment every month based on its enrollment. For September through November, until enrollments are audited and verified, it pays based on the enrollment at the school in the prior June.

Starting in December, it pays based on actual numbers, and reconciles either up or down for the first three months, he said.

Gallard said that even with the increase above what was expected, the rate of growth in brick-and-mortar charter enrollment slowed from last year. Between 2011 and 2012, nearly 8,000 additional students enrolled in charters, a growth rate of 17 percent. This year the total jump in the charter population was 5,307, or about 10 percent.

The slowed growth is partly due to the fact that the School Reform Commission has put a moratorium on expansion of existing charters and has declined to approve the creation of new charters. The commission did approve three new Renaissance charter schools in 2013.

It is also moving more aggressively to hold charter schools to enrollment caps, a contentious issue that has been in court for years and is a subject of both political and legal tussling. Some charters have signed agreements with limits, but then enrolled additional students and sought payment directly from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. PDE has paid up, saying that the law requires it, even after the SRC invoked its own powers to suspend that part of the charter law. 

A bill to overhaul the charter law now under consideration in Harrisburg would prohibit enrollment caps, allow universities to authorize charters, and reduce the power of the SRC to control charter growth. District officials say that without that ability, they cannot reasonably plan financially, given the way that the District and charter schools are funded.

In August, the SRC suspended parts of the current charter law, as it has the power to do, regarding the District's prohibition of enrollment caps. Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn subsequently sent warning letters to charters that the District says are overenrolled. He threatened action against them, which could include proceedings to revoke their existing charters if they don't adhere to agreed-upon caps. He also said that the schools should no longer seek direct payment from PDE, but it seems that both charter schools and PDE are ignoring that action.

Kihn gave the charters until Dec. 15 to reply. Since his letter, several charters that have not signed renewals have come to agreement with the District, Kihn said.

Overlaying all of this activity is the pending charter law debate in the state legislature, as well as the District's continued financial problems, which have resulted in massive cuts in personnel and services this year in District-run schools.

Here is how enrollment in brick-and-mortar charters has climbed over the past five years, according to School District data:

2008-09: 31,527
2009-10: 33,995 (+2,468)
2010-11: 40,422 (+6,427)
2011-12: 46,904 (+6,482)
2012-13: 54,868 (+7,964)
2013-14: 60,175 (+5,307)

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Dale Mezzacappa

@dalemezz
Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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