When it comes to charter schools in Philadelphia, even the littlest things can draw big attention.
That's what happened to a small charter school in Chinatown this week after the School District recommended that its application for a new school be rejected.
The proposed school, dubbed FACT-2, would have served 350 students and been in the same building as the original Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School (FACTS), a high-performing charter designed to serve immigrant and refugee students.
On Thursday night, the School Reform Commission opted not to vote on the FACT-2 proposal and to reconsider a revised application in February instead.
But before that, FACT-2 spent 24 hours as a political football in the bruising fight over charter reform and growth.
The conflict began — or at least picked up steam — after Pennsylvania Republican House Speaker and charter advocate Mike Turzai sent a biting letter to the SRC. Turzai was upset because the District's charter school office (CSO) had recommended that the FACT-2 application be rejected.
This non-endorsement was, Turzai asserted, part of a broader plan to slow charter growth in Philadelphia.
"The CSO's concerns about the FACTS application are ostensibly 'technical' in nature but may really be designed to just prevent approval of this charter school and a policy of slowing down or preventing the approval of charter schools," Turzai wrote.
Essentially, Turzai accused the District of nitpicking the FACT-2 application so that it could prevent the school from opening. This is a common concern among charter advocates.
Many believe that the District wants to slow charter growth because creating new charters also creates new competition for traditional public schools and can drain the District of dollars. The District has, in the past, cited charter costs as a major driver of its long-term deficit.
Pennsylvania's charter law, choice advocates say, doesn't permit charter authorizers to cite money woes as a reason for rejecting an application. So instead, the theory goes, districts may find little, "technical" flaws to shoot down a proposed school.
Mike Wang, executive director of Philadelphia School Advocacy Partners, a pro-charter advocacy group, argued that for school districts, "preservation of the system itself is the default mode." Therefore, Wang said, when districts make decisions about charters, they're apt to make decisions that are in their own organizational self-interest.
"It really causes you to question of whether a charter school office embedded in a school district can act objectively," he said.
The FACT-2 application was a good test case for this theory on a number of levels.
For starters, the original FACTS is an acclaimed school.
This year, it was one of two Philadelphia schools — public or private — to earn National Blue Ribbon honors from the U.S. Department of Education, which cited its work in closing the achievement gap. FACTS also performs well on standardized tests, particularly for a school where 61 percent of students live in poverty and 13 percent are English language learners. Charter advocates say it's precisely the type of school the District should replicate.
"Denying a Blue Ribbon school like FACTS undermines the District's credibility as a fair and impartial evaluator of schools," said Jonathan Cetel, executive director of PennCANN, another school choice advocacy organization.
FACTS also has allies across the ideological spectrum. One of its co-founders is Councilwoman-at-large Helen Gym, a frequent charter skeptic. Gym's husband also served on the school's board until she took office. Gym declined to comment for this article.
This isn't the first time Turzai, who hails from Allegheny County, has meddled in Philadelphia's charter school decision-making. In 2015, he said he was "very disappointed" after the School Reform Commission approved just five out of the 39 charter applications brought before it.
The 2015 applications were the first to follow a deal struck between city leaders and Harrisburg lawmakers. Republican legislators allowed Philadelphia to impose a cigarette tax and funnel the money to the city's cash-strapped schools. In exchange, the District reopened and formalized its charter school application process after a long moratorium on new schools. The GOP expected that this deal would lead to charter growth.
"Our expectation at the time was that a fair and transparent charter application that would ensure that worthy applications be approved," Turzai wrote this week.
Clearly, however, some school choice supporters worry that bargain will not be upheld by Philadelphia's school leaders.
All of this supposes that the District didn't have legitimate reasons for rejecting the FACT-2 application. But that's not the case, says District charter school office director DawnLynne Kacer.
The reasons for rejecting the application were "substantive," she said. For proof, Kacer pointed to the 13-page report her office wrote on the FACT-2 application.
It found a number of flaws, many of them about governance.
When FACTS originally proposed FACT-2, it came with a promise to dissolve the original school. In a revised application, however, the school leaders proposed creating two schools and locating the new school in the same building as the original FACTS. This change of direction raised questions that the charter office felt hadn't been sufficiently answered.
"That revised submission did not address a whole new host of governance issues and concerns that are necessary for running two independent charter schools," Kacer said.
In its appraisal, the charter school office wrote: "Various outstanding questions exist regarding the governance of FACT-2; for example, no shared services staffing model, shared services agreement, or budget for FACT-2 to pay for shared services was submitted with the revised application."
It later stated: "The applicant failed to submit separate operating budgets for FACTS and FACT-2, and the staffing model for each school as well as the respective grade level enrollment for each school in each year of the charter are unclear, which prevent a comprehensive evaluation of the budget and facilities."
The School Reform Commission was slated to vote up or down on the FACT-2 proposal at its Thursday meeting. Instead, FACT-2 decided to withdraw its application and work on an expansion proposal for the existing FACTS charter school. That proposal is expected to go before the commission in February.
"You guys provide a great education. You're one of the top charter school providers in the city," said Commissioner Bill Green, who said he'd like to see FACTS expand. But, he added, "We don't want to have to monitor two charter schools."
FACTS executive director Ellen Somekawa said she was on board with the delay. An overflow crowd of supporters showed up at the SRC meeting to advocate for the school, which Somekawa cited as proof that a new program targeting English language learners and immigrants has broad support.
"I believe that people can see that FACTS is a quality operator," she said.
Other business at the SRC's Thursday meeting included the approval of the new academic calendar and the announcement of a new Vaux school in North Philadelphia.
The SRC voted to approve a new academic calendar for 2017-18 and 2018-19. Starting next year, spring break will be reduced to three weekdays. Bigger changes will come in 2018-19. In 2018, the school year will start Aug. 28 and end June 4, 2019, and it will have two fewer half-days.
Also, schools will be closed on Election Day next year, but the day will return to being a professional development day in the 2018-19 school year.
To configure the best schedule, the District considered feedback from a 10-day online survey for community members, including parents, teachers, religious groups, and SEPTA workers. Of the 6,600 responses, said Cheryl Logan, chief of academic support for the District, they found that parents saw half-days and the length of spring break as an inconvenience.
When news of the proposed calendar broke, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers opposed the schedule change, with concerns about the summer heat.
Union president Jerry Jordan said that schools in old buildings without air conditioning get extremely hot during the summer months and may pose a threat to students and staff with respiratory problems such as asthma.
For those who shared this concern, Logan said, she "debunked the myth around temperature" using data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to assure parents that the difference in temperature was minimal.
"Many other school districts in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania start school before Labor Day," Logan said. "The decision to start school in late August will give students more instructional time earlier in the year. This means more consistent, uninterrupted weeks of schooling to support good instructional and attendance habits."
The District also unveiled its plans to reopen the Vaux High School building as a new college preparatory high school. The school, located in the Sharswood/Blumberg section of the city, will be managed by the Big Picture Network, a management network that uses an innovative research-based approach to education.
Big Picture manages more than 70 schools nationwide and reports a 96 percent daily attendance rate, 95 percent on-time graduation rate, and 89 percent college acceptance rate.
The school building, which was closed in 2013, will be purchased by the Philadelphia Housing Authority for $2 million as a part of the redevelopment of the Sharswood neighborhood. The PHA will invest $10 million to $15 million in renovations and provide an annual subsidy of $500 to the students attending the school.
The new and improved Vaux High School will serve up to 504 students, starting with grade 9 and adding a grade each year. Beginning next school year, the school will admit 125 students annually and will grant automatic admission to students from George G. Meade School and Robert Morris School.
The remaining spots will be offered in a tiered enrollment process, with the first priority given to students from the W.D. Kelley area, then to students from the Strawberry Mansion area. Any seats left will be filled by students from across the city.
The ideal student at the new school will have "graduated 8th grade on time" and will be "looking for a proven, internship-based, college preparatory experience." Teachers at the school will be represented by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
"As we work toward our goal of great schools close to where children live, the District is proud to provide more educational opportunities in the growing Sharswood neighborhood," said William Hite, superintendent of the School District.