Since February, against a backdrop of increasing tension with charter operators in Philadelphia and their legislative supporters in Harrisburg, the School Reform Commission has given the go-ahead for two new charter schools to open and voted to renew eight more.
All told, the SRC’s Office of Charter Schools recommended the renewal of 23 of the 25 charters that were due, all but one of them with conditions. But most of the schools are balking at the terms attached, charging that the charter school office is overreaching and trying to micromanage them.
They are getting strong support in their complaints from Republican House Speaker Mike Turzai, who sent a letter to SRC members all but threatening to withhold some state aid to the District unless the SRC is more charter-friendly.
Turzai accused the SRC of either wanting to close charter schools "or at the very least purposely make it difficult for them to operate." He has sponsored a bill that would require Philadelphia to approve at least 3,000 new charter seats a year.
In the tussle with Harrisburg over charter expansion, the District emphasizes that the new charters and renewals, some of which allowed for enrollment growth, will eventually add at least 2,000 charter seats in Philadelphia.
Complicating matters for the District is a 20-year-old charter law that most agree is archaic, but has so far eluded revision. Philadelphia, with half the charters in the state, is affected most.
Among other things, the law requires each school district to consider charter applications on their merits, without factoring in the fiscal impact on the district.
Although it has a small fund balance now, the District faces a shortfall in five years of close to $1 billion, and charters consume nearly a third of the District’s $3 billion budget. In addition to the outdated charter law, Philadelphia must deal with a state funding system that has resulted in the widest gaps between wealthy and poor districts in the nation, leaving District schools and charters to fight over an inadequate pot of revenue
The District has commissioned analyses that show “stranded costs” for each student who attends a charter – nearly $5,000 by the latest estimate – but charter advocates are not sympathetic. They say that the District has not “rightsized” itself efficiently as more and more families choose charter options and schools become underutilized. Charters now educate about a third of the city’s students who attend publicly funded schools.
On the other side, the SRC faces pressure from advocates who mourn the closing of every neighborhood school.
Attempts at charter reform
“Charter growth needs to be managed responsibly to ensure that charter school students are not benefiting at the expense of traditional public school students,” wrote Olney Elementary School principal Michael Roth in an op-ed that appeared on Philly.com. Roth has worked in both District and charter schools.
The House, with Turzai’s backing, has passed a revised charter law that addresses several points of contention and sets up a commission that would look at revising that the independent public schools are funded. But school districts strongly opposed some elements of the bill, including provisions that they say would allow virtually unfettered expansion while weakening the oversight that would insure quality. The bill is awaiting Senate action.
Several Democrats, including State Sen. Vincent Hughes of Philadelphia, have introduced their own charter reform bill based on a report from the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee finding that 40 percent of the state’s districts that have charter schools report “significant” financial troubles.
“Charter schools play a role in our education system and have a place, but they cannot be positioned in such a way that they financially put our traditional public schools in a bind,” Hughes said.
Representatives from the District and charter schools in Philadelphia met over a period of months in an effort to find common ground on charter reform, but ultimately could not agree on a deal.
“The biggest challenge is the status of the charter school law. It doesn’t give the SRC or any school board any discretion,” said Commissioner Christopher McGinley, a former Philadelphia principal and suburban superintendent.
McGinley was speaking in the wake of the SRC’s vote on May 25 to approve the revised application of Deep Roots Charter School after denying it in February. The school plans to open in Kensington as a K-8 school with a mission to set students in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods on a path to college. It would have an enrollment of more than 500 students.
McGinley was the sole dissenter in the 4-1 vote to approve the revised application. The charter law requires a school board to vote on a revised application within 45 days of the initial denial. It constrains an authorizing school board’s ability to reaffirm the denial if the new application addresses the inadequacies.
Initially, the SRC said the application lacked sufficient plans for serving English learners and special education students. The resubmitted application addressed that, but reduced the expected salaries of teachers to make ends meet.
“That concerned me greatly,” McGinley said.
But Commissioner Estelle Richman, who was attending her first meeting after being confirmed by the state Senate, explained her yes vote by saying that the SRC had to consider the expense and time that would be consumed by an appeal to the state. All its energy should be spent on resolving the stalemate that has resulted in District teachers working without a contract, or raises, for more than four years, Richman said.
On Feb. 9, the SRC approved KIPP Parkside, which will open in 2019 as a K-4 school. It will be KIPP Philadelphia’s seventh school in the city.
It had sought a K-8 school to open in 2018, but the SRC was concerned about lagging performance in middle school grades at other KIPP schools.
At that February meeting it rejected a third application for a school to be located in the former Whittier School in North Philadelphia, and that group did not appeal.
The SRC voted to deny renewal to Laboratory Charter, which, despite meeting most academic goals, has serious and persistent financial and operational irregularities. Among other things, the SRC’s charter office found, it couldn’t document that it had done child-abuse clearances for all its employees.
Laboratory was founded by Dorothy June Brown, who was charged with defrauding three schools she established, including Laboratory, of $7.6 million. The charges were dropped in 2015 after the then-78-year-old was deemed unfit to stand trial because of dementia. The school remains open and can reapply for renewal if it shows improvements.
Commissioners tabled a second non-renewal recommendation, for Memphis Street Academy, after protests that the metrics used to measure its academic progress were skewed. Memphis Street is operated by American Paradigm, which runs three other charters in the city that were renewed. Memphis Street at J.P. Jones is a former District school converted to a charter for turnaround.