August 8 — 9:13 am, 2019

Public schools, charter schools and…innovation schools? Why a new category of school in Pa.?

Stealth addition to school code seems to benefit just one school: Belmont Charter, founded by politically-connected Michael Karp

Belmont Charter School lobbied for the innovation schools law and intends to apply for the designation. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Amid a flurry of action before summer recess this year, state lawmakers created a new category of public school — with little warning or open debate — that seems designed to benefit one charter school in Philadelphia.

They’re called “innovation schools.” Backers say the new category is a good-spirited attempt to cut through red tape and test a model that blends academics with behavioral health supports.

Skeptics think it’s a political hand-out that could create a dangerous precedent for other schools who want special favors.

It’s hard to define what an innovation school is at this point. An eight-page insert into Pennsylvania’s school code says applicants can apply to the state Department of Education and submit annual plans about their work.

One part of this law seems to be about giving schools extra flexibility.

If the state education department approves the application and the annual plan submitted by the innovation school, it must then waive any state regulations that would conflict with the implementation of that plan. The department must also seek federal waivers for any federal regulations that could get in the way of the approved annual plan.

Those waivers can be in any of eight categories, including academic testing, behavioral health services, and academic assistance.

The new law also demands better coordination among state agencies on behalf of any innovation school.

And there is one area were the law is strikingly specific: who can apply.

To apply for this designation, the school must be located in a federal promise zone, have partnered with behavioral health specialists, and be within “the bottom 5% of all schools in this Commonwealth based on the percent of enrollment that is economically disadvantaged.”

There is only one federal promise zone in Pennsylvania, and it’s in West Philadelphia. Within that promise zone, there are just seven schools, six of which are run by the School District of Philadelphia. The district said it did not advocate for this law and only found out about it shortly before the legislature approved it.

The seventh school is Belmont Charter School, whose founder, Michael Karp, is a prominent real estate developer and political donor.

Read the rest of this story at WHYY News



the notebook

Our news is free to read, but not to report.

support local journalism