Will charters agree to limit enrollment in return for discounted buildings?
by Benjamin Herold on May 09 2011 Posted in Latest news
The School District of Philadelphia hopes to preserve its declining ability to manage the growth of charter schools by offering a discount on unused school buildings only to charters that agree not to expand their enrollment.
But will charter school operators – who are gaining growing clout under the school-choice-focused Corbett administration – go for it?
A pair of prominent local charter school operators and advocates consulted by the Notebook had differing responses to the District’s proposal, part of a draft “Adaptive Reuse Policy” that is currently under review.
“We need to get smart and start looking at win-win [propositions]. If this doesn’t qualify, it’s a damn good start,” said Lawrence Jones, CEO of the Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School in Southwest Philadelphia and president of the board of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.
But Jurate Krokys, the CEO of Independence Charter School in Center City and vice president of Philadelphia Charters for Excellence, is far less enthusiastic. She doesn’t think successful charters should be hamstrung in their ability to meet the demand of parents looking for alternatives.
“It’s great that [the District] is finally doing something about the underuse of buildings,” said Krokys. “But I think it’s unfair to limit [access for] charter schools that don’t want to sign on the line.”
At issue is a provision in the proposed Adaptive Reuse Policy that says charter schools can be designated “Tier 1 Educational Users” eligible to purchase available properties at a discounted price of up to 25 percent off fair market value – but only if they “agree not to seek additional charter seats in their proposal.”
“At the end of the day, the key for us in terms of the charters is to make sure that we do…a ‘planned growth method,’” said District Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery last month.
Once adopted, the Adaptive Reuse Policy will govern how the District disposes of its surplus property, including unused school buildings. With District officials looking to shed up to 50 buildings and 35,000 “empty seats” as part of its facilities master planning process, the policy is likely to have a far-reaching impact.
An initial draft was first unveiled last month, along with a set of “right-sizing” recommendations that included the sale of seven District-owned properties. Among the properties to be sold are the shuttered Ada Lewis school building in Germantown and the former Childs school building in South Philadelphia.
But before those buildings can be listed and sold, the School Reform Commission must first approve the final Adaptive Reuse Policy. A vote is currently scheduled for May 18.
In the meantime, the District is seeking feedback on the policy at a series of community meetings, including this Tuesday from 6-8 p.m. at Lincoln High School and Thursday from 6-8 p.m. at Temple University.
Deputy for Strategic Initiatives Danielle Floyd said last month the District is also actively seeking feedback from charter operators on the draft policy.
“We want to be good partners to charter schools,” said Floyd.
The District is currently the sole authorizer of charters in Philadelphia, but its right to manage charter school growth is the subject of intense debate. Acting Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Ronald Tomalis sided in March with the Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Charter School, which argued that the District had imposed an illegal enrollment cap on the school. District officials, however, argue that their ability to budget and plan effectively is dependent on the ability to manage growth and say they will appeal the decision in Commonwealth Court.
Several local charter operators have related lawsuits pending against the District that challenge charter enrollment caps. Republican Pennsylvania State Senator Jeffrey Piccola has also proposed amending the state’s charter law to allow for charter expansion and the creation of new charters.
The District is facing a $629 million budget shortfall for next year, driven in part by charter school costs that are expected to grow by 23 percent. At the same time, the Corbett administration wants to eliminate charter reimbursements to school districts, which will cost Philadelphia more than $100 million.
So the stakes of the debate are higher than ever.
The provision in the proposed Adaptive Reuse Policy will not resolve these larger tensions, but it does seem to signal the District’s awareness that its control over charters is slipping away and that creative thinking is necessary.
Jones of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools said he didn’t have any problem with the proposal, so long as it’s presented as an incentive and not a mandate.
“The coalition believes that enrollment caps are illegal in Pennsylvania unless there is a mutual agreement between the charter and the school district,” said Jones. “If a charter wants to take advantage of this incentive and is willing to take an enrollment cap, I have no problem with that.”
He speculated that start-up and recently founded charter schools might be particularly willing to take advantage of the District’s offer.
“I think there are schools that would jump on it,” he said.
Independence Charter School is not one of them.
“Facilities are always a challenge,” acknowledged Krokys, who helped spearhead Independence’s purchase of the former Durham School at 16th and Lombard Streets.
“But for me, it’s more of an ethical question,” she added. “Generally speaking, charter operators are reformers. It’s not just that I want to grow because I want a little empire. We’re supposed to serving the children of Philadelphia. That’s why I won’t sign on that line.”
This story is a product of a reporting partnership on the facilities master plan between the Notebook and PlanPhilly.