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Group Offers Up $35 Million for Philadelphia Charter School Expansion

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By Denisa R. Superville. Cross-posted from the District Dossier blog.

A local education group is promising to pony up $35 million in the hopes of getting the Philadelphia School Reform Commission to approve 39 new charter school applications.

The cost of opening more than two dozen charter schools has been a major bone of contention in the city, where the public school district's perennial money problems often overshadow its academic programs.

Mark Gleason, the executive director of the influential Philadelphia School Partnership, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he hopes the $35 million will "take the cost issue off the table for the district," clearing the way for the commission to approve the applications that will add about 14,000 new charter seats over the next three years.

"We are trying to make it cost-neutral for the district, so they consider the applications on their own merits," Gleason told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Because of the way Pennsylvania funds its charter schools—school systems pay tuition to charter schools based on the cost of educating each child in the district—the Philadelphia school district, which has suffered from budget and staff cuts in the last few years, has said that approving more charters will likely take away from traditional district-run schools.

According to a report by the Philadelphia-based advocacy group, Public Citizens for Children and Youth, approving the 40 applications that were submitted last November would cause the district's total charter payments to balloon past $1 billion and flip the district's student population to one where a majority of the students—51 percent—would attend charter schools. (Since then, one of the applicants has dropped out, leaving 39 candidates.)

The School Reform Commission, which runs Philadelphia's schools, could make its ruling on the applications as early as next week.

When the applications for new charter schools were sought in October, the district said that "any new schools will be considered in the context of the district's budgetary constraints."

The commission has not approved new non-Renaissance charters (essentially district charter schools), of which there are 20, since 2007.

"The district recognizes and appreciates the value of each school and strives to offer the best possible options for students in Philadelphia," the district said at the time. "In overseeing this system, the district must consider the impact that each type of school has on the system of schools in terms of budgeting, choice, and quality. The district acknowledges the important contributions of charter schools in providing choices to families in Philadelphia, while concurrently the district recognizes the broader impacts inherent in the opening of new charter schools."

Charter school expansion and oversight have been a source of concern in Philadelphia and in Harrisburg. The Inquirer reports that newly elected Gov. Tom Wolf, who has called for a state-level creation of an office overseeing charters and cyber schools, has said that he does not want any charters approved in the city this go-around.

The Republican House Speaker, Mike Turzai, on the other hand, has said that he'd like to see between 16 and 27 of the applications approved, the paper reports.

In any event, it is unclear whether the district can and will accept the money from the Philadelphia School Partnership.

Fernando Gallard, a district spokesman, told CBS Philly that the district was "appreciative of the offer" and that the charter applications will be considered on their merits. 

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