As 2014 began, it looked as if it might be the year in which the state legislature would finally revise the nearly two-decade-old charter law.
There was anticipation that Republican legislators would try to boost then-Gov. Tom Corbett’s poll numbers – sagging mostly due to his education policy – by tackling this.
Hope for change was particularly fervent in Philadelphia, where charters educate about a third of public school children and consume about 30 percent of the District’s budget. District officials sought revisions that would ease the financial pressure from charter expansion.
However, 2014 turned out not to be the year for an overhaul of the charter law. Still, there were important developments that affected charter funding and policy – with major consequences for the School District.
Specifically, the legislature authorized the city to raise the cigarette tax to help fund schools but attached the condition that the SRC must reopen a charter application pipeline that the School Reform Commission had kept closed since 2007 for financial reasons.
As a result, the SRC is now considering 40 new applications representing some 40,000 new seats; the District’s financial plan assumes only 5,500 new charter students in its entire five-year timeframe.
Crucially, the legislation also allows rejected applicants to appeal to the state Charter School Appeal Board, which could overturn the SRC’s decisions.
These developments have re-engaged the ferocious debate over whether charter expansion will benefit or hurt the children of Philadelphia.
During the time the SRC stopped considering new applications, charter enrollment growth did not stop. The District turned over 21 low-performing District schools to charter operators. Between those and expansions, the number of charter school students increased by 75 percent to nearly 70,000, counting cyber schools.
Alarmed about expansion
Still, granting new charters could ruin the District’s finances, according to some education advocates.
Public Citizens for Children and Youth issued a report urging the SRC to reject all of them. Granting any new charters would come at the expense of “already starved District-operated schools,” the report said. The SRC is obliged to do this because it is legally bound to be financially responsible, PCCY argued.
Charter advocates, on the other hand, view this as an opportunity to address what they say is pent-up demand for more and better public school choices.
Philadelphia School Advocacy Partners, affiliated with the Philadelphia School Partnership, said it would be “irresponsible to reject those applicants that have the demonstrated ability to effectively serve low-income students. … How can we afford not to give Philadelphia’s families the best schools our city has to offer?”
In late January, House Speaker Mike Turzai came to Philadelphia to hear charter parents and students tell stories of educational salvation. Later, he said “there was an expectation” in the legislature that the SRC would approve more of them.
SRC to decide
The SRC held charter hearings in December and January, with a deadline for decisions of Feb. 21. More than 70 percent of the applications are from current Philadelphia charter operators. Several, including Mastery, KIPP, MaST, and Independence, are seeking more than one new school; String Theory wants four.
Some of the 11 applicants that do not already operate city charters are community-based efforts. One neighborhood coalition seeks to open a school called Germantown Community Charter in the wake of the closure of Germantown High and Robert Fulton Elementary. The Philadelphia Career and Technical Academy is also being proposed for Germantown.
The Liguori Academy drew attention because it was planned as a Catholic school, but then applied for a charter, which requires it to be non-sectarian.
“We know our responsibilities in that regard,” said the Rev. Michael Marrone, a priest who has taken a leave to lead the new school. “We changed the plan” but “kept the mission,” he said, of seeking to serve up to 1,200 potential dropouts – students with excessive absences, low grades and test scores, and at least one suspension.
String Theory operates the Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter, with three campuses in South Philadelphia and Center City; its School of Arts and Sciences is a turnaround of F.S. Edmunds in Frankford. It wants to open new charters in East Falls, Grays Ferry, Pennsport, and Port Richmond.
At a hearing, the District raised concerns that Performing Arts students are much more White and Asian than those of the average District school, and fewer are low-income.
Charter officials responded that the target demographics for the proposed schools reflected their neighborhoods and cited a newly adopted diversity outreach plan.
The proposed Partnership School for Science and Innovation, which MaST charter wants to open in Center City, makes an overt pitch for recruiting students from well-educated millennials. It would admit students first from Center City zip codes, while setting aside 20 percent of seats for “disadvantaged” areas. The existing MaST charter serves 71 percent White students, 10 percent Asians, 7 percent Latinos, and 8 percent African Americans.
MaST CEO John Swoyer III said in an interview that parents in Center City asked him to apply for a charter there. “They feel strongly that there is a need for a school that draws students from that neighborhood,” he said. “We agreed; we just want to help more kids.”
The PCCY analysis found that 24 of the 40 charter applicants serve a smaller share of students who are economically disadvantaged than the District average; 21 of the 40 charter applicants serve fewer African Americans.
While the proposed addition of many charters was the biggest story of 2014, it was not the only development. Two charters, Wakisha and Walter D. Palmer, abruptly closed in December, leaving the District scrambling to find new placements for some 1,500 students.
One of the city’s largest charter operators, ASPIRA, Inc., is under investigation for potential financial irregularities. ASPIRA, which educates more than 3,800 students, said in a statement that “no instances of fiscal mismanagement have been found” by audits or other inquiries.
Five charters are at different stages of the closing process after SRC non-renewal votes: Arise Academy, Community Academy, Imani Education Circle, New Media Technology and Truebright Science Academy. Appeals to the state board and the courts can take years.
In Harrisburg, the political wrangling over how charters are funded continued. In June, the legislature fixed a “double-dip” under which charters got direct payments from the state for 50 percent of their pension obligations and a 100 percent payment from school districts as part of their per-student allotments.
But after fierce battling, charters were exempted by the legislature from a new special education funding formula that takes into account the level of a student’s disability. One analysis found that charters are getting millions more in state aid for special education students than they spend.
This may be addressed by the legislature’s Basic Education Funding Commission, due to make a report by June. But what changes may ultimately be adopted remain to be seen. New Democratic Gov. Wolf has promised to overhaul and boost education funding, but the General Assembly is firmly Republican.