If enough of the missing students turn up in charters, District budget worries would grow
The School District is trying to find 4,000 students that it expected to enroll in September who didn't show up.
Many of those may have switched to charter schools. Superintendent William Hite has said that of the $45 million that the state released last month, about $10 million has been set aside in anticipation of higher charter payments, which are mandated based on enrollment.
If it turns out that more than 1,000 or so of the missing students turn up in charters, that $10 million figure could go higher and create a new budget hole. District officials say they still don't have a definitive count of charter enrollment citywide.
The District has sought for years to impose enrollment caps on charter schools to contain the rapid growth of its payouts to charters. Still, it would be possible for charter enrollment to increase sigificantly citywide without any charters breaking their agreements, because many are not enrolled up to their limit.
Dozens of other charters have simply refused to sign their charter renewals, in many cases protesting the imposition of caps. And on that front, the District recently fired another salvo in the continuing conflict.
In August, the School Reform Commission waived parts of the school code that apply to charters, which it has the power to do under the state takeover. The waiver overrides language in the code that forbids charter authorizers -- school districts -- from imposing enrollment caps on charters.
Last month, the District sent letters to charter schools threatening to begin procedures to revoke their charters unless they agree to enrollment limits. Of the city's 86 charters, 32 are operating without signed charters.
Of that group, nine charters have reached agreement and four others -- Imani, Arise Academy, Truebright, and Community Academy -- are in some phase of non-renewal hearings.
Among the remaining 19 that have not reached agreements, six are overenrolled, according to an accounting provided by District spokesman Fernando Gallard.
Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn has sent letters to the schools that have not reached agreements, setting a deadline of mid-December.
"Failure of your Charter School to bring itself into compliance by December 15, 2013 shall be grounds for suspension, nonrenewal or revocation by the SRC of the purported charter on which that Charter School relies," the letter says.
The issue of whether the District has the right to impose enrollment limits has been in court for several years. Some charters have sought and received payments directly from the state Department of Education for students that the District says are beyond the cap.
Lawrence Jones, head of the Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School and president of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said that the District's actions have provoked more acrimony.
Jones said that his school is slightly overenrolled and is among five schools that are plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the SRC's authority to impose caps. That lawsuit is still active.
"What we've been asking for for many years is that there be a fair, transparent and equitable process for expansion, renewals, for revocation, for everything," he said. "I didn't know this was going to happen."
The District says that it must enforce enrollment caps on charters in order to be able to plan financially. Nearly $700 million of its $2.4 billion budget consists of payments to charter schools, which enroll close to 60,000 students.
"Your Charter School’s actions in not signing a charter are contrary to law, and not doing so in a form acceptable to the School District together threaten the financial stability of the entire School District," the letter to the charters says. "Without being able to rely on the certainty of a charter school’s enrollment and other critical terms of a binding, signed charter document, the School District cannot properly plan for the future of public education in Philadelphia."
The District pays each charter school $8,596.72 for each regular education student and $22,242.22 for each special education student.
Officials say that they were expecting 135,000 students to enroll in District-run schools this fall, and the actual number is close to 131,000.