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Deadline Friday to comment on District's proposed new charter policy

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The School District is proposing an overhaul of its charter school authorizing policy to make it more rigorous and consistent and is seeking public comment on the changes.

The deadline for providing such comment is this Friday, March 7. Comments can be recorded here. Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn said the proposed policy will be revised to take the feedback into account.

Specifically, the proposed rules are aimed to support high-quality charters and close underperforming ones, while offering more frequent monitoring, more transparency, and the opportunity for expansion to charters that meet new, higher standards and academic benchmarks.

But the District also wants to require charters to sign agreements that include enrollment caps -- a bitter point of contention among charter operators -- and enshrine in policy the notion that the District has a right to take its own financial condition into account when making charter decisions. 

The new policy rollout, to be presented to the School Reform Commission for a vote at its next meeting on March 20, comes at the same time that Pennsylvania's General Assembly is considering legislation that weakens the power of districts to control charter growth.

Among other changes, the proposed state law would allow universities to authorize charter schools, take away a district's power to set enrollment limits, and allow any charter operator with multiple sites to switch its oversight away from the district to the state.

"Any of those things would pose an existential threat to the District,"  Kihn said in an interview. 

Kihn said that Philadelphia's effort to improve the authorizing and oversight of charters has been underway for about 18 months and is not a response to the legislation.

The ultimate fate of the District's efforts and the legislation are intertwined.

Philadelphia, with more than half the state's charter schools, is clearly the district that would be most affected by any change in the state law. And some local charter operators and advocates support pieces of the bill, including those that would do away with enrollment caps and allow universities to authorize charters.

While supporting some elements of the District's proposed changes, Jonathan Cetel of the statewide advocacy group PennCAN said that the organization "remains a a strong supporter of creating additional authorizing options because we've seen the model work in other states." He said that charter schools authorized by universities in New York and Michigan are generally high-performing.

"Philadelphia will benefit from having a higher-ed authorizer that has the capacity, interest, and skill set to perform the three core functions of good authorizing: opening up new schools, providing meaningful oversight and support to existing schools, and closing bad schools," he wrote in an email. 

Cetel also disputes the idea that the District should be able to consider it own financial situation in deciding to curb charter growth.He said he was "disappointed" that the proposed new policy codifies "the District's aggressive and illegal tactic of curbing charter enrollment by threatening all charter schools with revocation if they don't comply with enrollment caps."

Lawrence Jones, president of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools and head of the Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School, said that the coalition would have a detailed response to the proposed changes by the deadline Friday. 

"I take at face value that they want to improve their ability to be a solid authorizer," Jones said. "We want a good authorizer that will not only provide oversight and accountability but that also provides advocacy and support so that every public school -- charters included -- has resources to do the job well."

Resources are controlled by the state, both through the method for disbursing education aid to districts and through the charter law, which dictates how the districts distribute money to charters. Although the state's charter law was designed to provide charters with a similar level of funding as traditional public schools in the authorizing district, Jones is among those who say that charters do not get a fair piece of the pie.

"We want fair funding and strong charter school authorization," Jones said. "Whatever can get us to that point is what we support. I would hope that the District is on the same wavelength with that."

Kihn acknowledged that the District's charter authorizing has suffered from deficiencies.

"There has been some justifiable frustration on the part of some charter operators about the way in which authorizing in Philadelphia has been done," he said. "That basically has changed now. It's really a new day." He said that the charter renewal process for this year "has been met with compliments and applause from providers." 

The new policy would require annual monitoring of charters instead of the current system in which evaluations only happen during the renewal process, which occurs every five years. It would allow for charter modification requests during the term of the charter instead of waiting till renewal,

He said that the charter office, which oversees 86 schools, has a staff of eight, but also contracts out some key functions like site visits and gets help from other District offices. One part of the policy vows to "ensure ... a staffing level appropriate and sufficient to carry out all authorizing responsibilities" and "an appropriate and sufficient funding" of the charter school office.

Like most other District offices, the charter school office has suffered chronic funding shortfalls.

And largely due to the District's funding situation, the SRC has not authorized a new charter school since 2009, except  for those District schools converted to charters under the Renaissance Schools turnaround initiative. It also has closed very few charters since they were created under the 1997 law for poor performance. Four charters have been closed, and four others are now in the process for closure.

In October, 29 charters did not have signed agreements and were sent warning letters by Kihn, setting the stage for the District's more vigorous charter accountability effort.

Since then, 12 have signed agreements. Kihn said eight more are likely to sign based on the discussions, three are pending, and for six, there has been no progress in discussions. Most charters object to enrollment caps, but some object more generally to the SRC's authority over them.

Kihn said that the District has invited feedback on the proposed policy by calling all 86 charter school operators and contacting myriad community, advocacy, faith-based and parent groups. They have had "30 to 40" conversations, but so far have received only four written responses, he said.

He said the District is "getting positive feedback on the general coherence and consistency and strength of the overall policy" -- including efforts to remove enrollment "barriers to entry" -- and on the shift to allowing annual modifications of charters instead of waiting five years for the renewal process.

He said that the District has also heard from people "a desire that District-managed schools are held to the same standard as charter schools." The policy calls for new charters to set up formal mechanisms for parent engagement and feedback, but some people said they would like to see a requirement that parents be included on the charter's governing board.

Philadelphia's 86 charter schools enroll more than 60,000 students, one-third of all the students in the city's publicly funded schools. Balancing the pressure for charter growth and the need for the District to maintain a sound fiscal footing is a defining issue for local officials and policymakers.

Paying charter schools has become one of the District's single largest expenses, exceeding $700 million. Charter funding is determined by state law. 

"There are, of course, those within the charter sector and advocates who believe charters are the solution to the educational ills of Philadelphia," Kihn said. "We don't believe that. We believe charters are part of the solution, and we also believe that well-managed District neighborhood schools are an equally important part of the solution. Advocacy in support of any state law that would allow unfettered growth of all kinds of charter schools in Philadelphia would be detrimental to families here."

 

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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.