February 26 — 3:09 pm, 2019

Commentary: School board should reject new charter applications

Evaluation reports by the District’s Charter Schools Office on all three applicants cite numerous concerns.

Deborah Grill

String Theory Charter

The Philadelphia Board of Education will vote Thursday on whether to approve applications for three new charter schools: People for People’s Frederick Douglass Charter High School, String Theory’s Joan Myers Brown Academy, and American Paradigm’s Tacony Academy Charter at St. Vincent’s.

The District cannot afford any more charter schools. Payments to charters represent the single biggest line item in the District’s budget — nearly one-third of its annual spending. According to these new charter schools’ proposed budgets, they would cost an additional $119 million just for the first five-year term. That does not take into account the stranded costs that the District would incur.

A recent report by Research for Action found that over five years, projected charter expansion from a minimum of 0.5 percent to a possible 4 percent could cost the District between $22 million and more than $154 million. To balance this financially, the District would have to close 22 to 47 neighborhood schools and lay off up to 1,200 teachers and 500 administrators. A vote for more charters, then, is a vote to close neighborhood schools.

This year’s applicants have attempted to make the case that their existing schools are models for replication, but the District’s data clearly show otherwise.

All four of American Paradigm’s charters have achievement ratings in the two lowest categories, Watch and Intervene, based on the District’s School Progress Report (SPR). Three of those schools have been operating on expired charters since 2017 as American Paradigm has declined to accept proposed conditions aiming to address the school’s deficiencies.

SPR achievement scores for String Theory’s existing K-12 school, which opened in 2000 and expanded in 2015, places it in the Watch category. That school’s demographics (51 percent white, 60 percent female, 40 percent living in poverty) do not reflect the racial or economic demographics of the District (14 percent white, 48 percent female, 74 percent living in poverty). String Theory’s Renaissance charter school, the former H.R. Edmunds Elementary in Frankford, has demographics that more closely reflect the District’s. It is in the Intervene category, a clear indication that String Theory did little to turn that school around. That school’s charter expired in 2017; String Theory has also refused to agree to conditions.

Both the elementary and high school levels at People For People’s existing K-12 charter school have scores in the lowest category, Intervene, on the SPR.

Evaluation reports on all three applicants by the District’s Charter Schools Office (CSO) cite numerous concerns: incomplete applications, missing curricula, unrealistic academic goals, insufficient plans for at-risk students, budget items, facility readiness, conflicts of interest, community needs analysis, the relationships of the charter management organizations to the schools’ founding coalitions, and more.

At last week’s meeting of the Board’s Student Achievement and Support Committee, representatives from each school expressed shock and dismay at the CSO’s findings. String Theory co-founder Jason Corosanite called the Charter Schools Office’s evaluation “biased.” Was he surprised that the CSO questioned the applicant’s mission to create a school based on performing arts, with a strong technology component, when the application failed to include curricula for either?

American Paradigm representative Gerald Santilli railed against the CSO’s finding fault with the application’s financial inconsistencies and insufficient budget.

People for People Charter CEO Pri Seebadri protested the CSO’s “insinuations” and “allegations” because of concerns about conflicts between the founding coalition and proposed board members and the applicant’s connection to the Greater Exodus Baptist Church and its development arm, People for People Inc. The applicant had taken pains to distance itself from those organizations. But Seebadri said last week that he was testifying on behalf of the Rev. Herbert Lusk, pastor of Great Exodus and CEO of People for People Inc.

Frederick Douglass Charter High, with a proposed enrollment of 500 students, would be located only a block away from People for People’s existing charter, at two separate locations — People for People Inc. owns one property, Greater Exodus owns the other.

American Paradigm intends to buy a 13-acre property along the Delaware River from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. They already know that part of the tract will be bought through eminent domain for the city’s expanding series of riverfront parks. The park development is predicted to increase property values, meaning that American Paradigm is likely to profit on its investment.

String Theory proposes to lease its new facility with intent to buy. The company bought its middle/high school building at 16th and Vine Streets in 2015 via a $55 million bond deal and is in debt to its own real estate procurement corporation, DeMedici II, which is described in financial statements as “a component unit of the school.” String Theory intends to charge the new charter school a higher management fee than the fees at its existing schools, while providing fewer services. Is opening this new school a way to pay off the debt of its K-12 school buildings? Corosanite suggested in a recent Philadelphia Inquirer article that String Theory could, with its “nimble” financing deals, replace the District’s older school buildings in one neighborhood with newly built charters. Is their plan to have one charter pay down the debt of the previous one?

These applications have less to do with increasing educational opportunities for Philadelphia’s children than with enriching charter operators and their affiliated businesses. The Board of Education should vote no on all of them.

Deborah Grill is a retired teacher and school librarian, and a research coordinator at the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools.

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