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Turzai’s letter raises serious issues of public concern

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    Emma Lee/WHYY

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Speaker of the House Mike Turzai’s recent letter to the School Reform Commission criticizing the District’s charter school renewal process raises serious issues of public importance. All of us who care about public education should be alarmed at what was said by Representative Turzai.

Turzai not only levels an unfounded attack on the SRC members, he attacks Philadelphia in his letter and makes a not very veiled threat to the SRC members: if they do not renew the charters in question, funding for Philadelphia’s schools will be in jeopardy. That is a misuse of his office.  

SRC Chairwoman Joyce Wilkerson responded to Turzai in a letter defending the SRC’s charter renewal process. As a retired teacher and principal, and an advocate for public education, I also responded directly to Turzai. My 8-page letter to him addresses the impropriety of his actions and the issues which his actions raise. They are issues of public concern.

Neither the District’s renewal process for the 26 schools in question, nor the SRC’s conditions for renewal are “overreach or inappropriate” as Turzai described them. Pursuant to the Charter School Law, the SRC and the District have an “affirmative legal duty” to assess whether our charter schools are meeting the requirements for student performance, meeting the “conditions” of its charter, and to determine whether the charter school is complying with applicable law.

If not, the SRC has the legal duty and responsibility to “revoke or not to renew” the charter. That can occur “during the term of the charter or at the end of the term.” The “causes for nonrenewal or termination” are stated quite clearly in Section 17-1729-A of the Charter School Law. The District’s recommendations for conditions are not only prudent, they are necessary for the basic functioning of those charter schools.

Such negotiated conditions are legal and appropriate to regulate those charter schools in the best interests of all of Philadelphia’s schoolchildren and our school community. Without those conditions, it would be the affirmative legal responsibility of the SRC to close those schools.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that the relationship between a local school board and a charter school is “regulatory.” That is exactly what the SRC members are doing. They are engaging in their public responsibility to the people of Philadelphia and the children in charter schools to regulate Philadelphia’s charter schools.

Partly in response to the public outcry about the lack of oversight of the charter schools, the SRC increased the staff of its Charter School Office, which is now led by the very able DawnLynne Kacer.

The question of whether a charter school should be renewed requires a very public process with full transparency. The PA Sunshine Act protects the public’s right to “notice and opportunity to comment meaningfully” on all proposed actions of the SRC and other school boards in Pennsylvania. The Sunshine Act codifies constitutional principles of public governance.  Our right to notice and opportunity to comment applies to any action of the SRC, including those pertaining to charter schools. It is an inalienable right of the citizens of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania.

The public has a right to know what is written in those schools’ charters, including all conditions and requirements. We have a right to copies of those documents and any proposed resolutions of the SRC or the charter schools themselves. We have a right to copies before any votes are taken by the SRC. That is required by the Sunshine Act.

Those of us who believe in democracy, and that our public schools should be fully governed by locally elected school boards, also believe that our local school boards should not be circumvented or short circuited in any way. Without adherence to the due process of public decision-making -- we cease to have truly public schools. Democracy is the purification process for the ills that plague our schools. Democracy is the sine qua non for greatness in our public schools.  

The SRC’s decision to revoke a school’s charter does not have to mean displacement of students or shuttering of the building. A charter revocation only means that the SRC becomes the school’s board of trustees and Superintendent Hite becomes its superintendent. The certified teachers on staff can immediately be hired by the District.

Charter schools’ boards of trustees have the right to pursue an appeals process when the school’s charter is revoked or terminated.  When public schools are closed, or converted to a charter school, there is no appeals process for those students and parents.  Perhaps Turzai could use the powers of his office to rectify that injustice.

There are many fine charter schools which operate properly and in the best interests of its students; those schools have no problem being renewed by the SRC. Our charter school community should embrace the public decision-making process for the renewal of our deserving charter schools.

Turzai knows who has the legal standing and the responsibility to enforce the responsibilities of charter schools and the rights of its students to an adequate education -- it is the School Reform Commission. The very same body imposed on Philadelphia by the state legislature in which he serves. Until he and his colleagues vote to return the governance of public schools to those who live in Philadelphia, he should let the SRC carry out its duties.        

Rich Migliore is a retired School District administrator, an attorney, and author of "Whose School Is It?" The Democratic Imperative for Our Schools." 

 

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