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Philadelphia Approves First New Charter Schools in Seven Years

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

For the first time in seven years, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission voted to approve new charter schools, giving the nod Wednesday night to five of 39 applications it received. 

The vote came after a nearly five-hour meeting that was fraught with emotion and often interrupted by outbursts from members of the audience who opposed opening the new schools.

The five-member commission, which runs the city schools, had been under pressure from all sides: from some parents and advocates, including the city's teachers' union, who were adamantly opposed to the openings, fearing that new charters would drain additional financial resources from the already cash-strapped district; from parents whose names have been on long waiting lists and want their children to have the option to attend charter schools; and from politicians, particularly Republicans, who have called for the expansion of high-quality school options among the city's schools.

The intense debate over charter school expansion erupted late last year when the School Reform Commission sought new applications, and 40 were submitted. A provision in a cigarette tax passed last year ginned up revenues for the city's schools and required the panel to seek new charter school applications.

The five charters that were approved on Wednesday will all be operated by organizations that already run charter schools in the city. They won three-year contracts, with specific conditions attached. The groups must agree to the conditions by May 31.

They are:

  • Independence Charter School West: A dual-language immersion K-4 school, with an enrollment of 300 students in year one. Scheduled to open in 2016-2017 school year.  (The application sought a K-8 school, with an 800-student enrollment at capacity.)
  • MaST Community Charter School, Roosevelt Campus: A K-5 school, with an enrollment of 400 students. Scheduled to open in 2016-2017 school year.
  • KIPP Dubois Charter School:  A school for grades 9-12, with an enrollment of 280 students in first year and 500 by year three. Scheduled to open in 2015-2016 school year.
  •  Independence Charter School West: A K-4 school, with an enrollment of 300 students in the first year. Scheduled to open in 2016-2017 school year.
  •  Mastery Charter School, Gillespie Campus: A K-5 school, with 336 students in the first year. Scheduled to open in 2016-2017 school year. (As one of the conditions, Mastery will surrender its charter if it is granted a Renaissance school—essentially a district-charter—before the opening date.)
  • TECH-Freire Charter School: A grade 9-12 school, with 300 students in the first year. Scheduled to open in 2016-2017 school year.

Mounting Pressure

The School Reform Commission has not voted to add any new traditional charter schools in seven years, although it has allowed existing charter schools to expand and has supported the opening of 20 renaissance schools (essentially district-charter schools). There are already 86 charter schools in the city, and the district pays approximately $765 million to educate those students, Chairman William Green said before the vote on Wednesday night.

Charter school enrollment has ballooned since 2007, and charters now educate 30 percent—or approximately 64,000—of the district's 207,000 students, according to Reuters.

With so much at stake, the commission has been feeling the heat from residents and politicians.

Gov. Tom Wolf has said that he has "serious concerns" about charter expansion in Philadelphia, at a time when the district's finances were unstable. 

"The district cannot spend money it doesn't have for new charters or other expenses," his spokesman, Jeffrey Sheridan, told Newsworks. 

But Mike Turzai, the speaker of the state House of Representatives, has called for more charters in the city, and Republicans have questioned the district's cost estimates, according to Newsworks.

The deliberations were further complicated earlier this month when the Philadelphia School Partnership, a pro-charter group, offered $25 million to the school district to ease the cost of the charter expansions and another $10 million to expand high-quality charter schools.

The school district has said that it will cost more than half a billion dollars over six years to approve all the schools and that each charter school could costs $7,000 a year. (Many in the audience on Wednesday night called on the SRC to reject the money. Some called it a "bribe.") 

Protesters and Supporters Make Their Case 

Wednesday's meeting was delayed because of a protest, and several times during the proceedings speakers had to shout over members of the audience to be heard.

When the first application was approved, following a string of denials, the meeting was again interrupted by chants of "SRC, we're no fools, you're destroying our public schools," and "shame, shame, shame on you."

"What you're doing is beyond irresponsible," one of the protesters told commission members as they assembled in front of the podium.

Before the vote, representatives from the schools made brief remarks in support of their applications to the commission. Many highlighted test scores, graduation rates and college-going rates that exceeded those of district schools.

Marc Mannella, the chief executive officer of KIPP: Philadelphia Schools touted the school's success in Philadelphia and across the country, noting that their alumni are four times more likely to graduate from college than their low-income peers. He said the organization has set a positive example for other charter schools and district schools.

"KIPP is ready to do more," he said. "The parents... on our waiting lists are imploring us to do more."

"We can be a part of the solution if you will let us," he told the board.

But Susan Gobreski, executive director of Education Voters Pennsylvania and the mother of children who attend both charter and public schools, urged the school reform commission not to approve the applications—at least right now.

Gobreski argued that the state charter law did not supersede other laws, including ones that compelled the School Reform Commission to provide financial stability for the school district and obligated it to educate the children who are currently in its schools.

She told the members that they were mistaken if they thought that approving the charter schools would win them favor in Harrisburg.

"You cannot please and you cannot appease Harrisburg," Gobreski said. "If you think you can throw them a bone today, and they are going to do anything for us, you're wrong... Tell them you will approve charter schools only after they do a funding formula." 

Karen Kilimnik, a community member, urged the commission members to be "courageous" and take a stand for all of the children of the school district of Philadelphia by rejecting the applications.

"You need to vote no on every application," she said. "Do not let legislators, anonymous donors and your own political aspirations destroy our public schools."

Many who opposed the new schools cited the absence of strict charter oversight and urged the commission to wait for the adoption of a statewide school funding formula and charter school reimbursement before approving any new applications.

But parents also spoke in favor of the applications and detailed years-long wait to move from district to charter schools.

Parent Hanna Nunez urged the district to approve the application for Global Leadership Academy, which she said would be a safe school with high academic standards, and would allow her son to graduate from high school and attend college. (That application was denied.)  

Aaron Bass, who spoke in favor of the KIPP applications and is a founding leader of KIPP Dubois, said parents should not have to wait when there were options for better schools, and KIPP had a proven track record of providing students with a great education.

The conversation among many families is not one of district schools versus charters, he said. Families simply want their children to attend good schools where they will be respected, be safe and can learn, he said. 

"The time to wait is over, the time to act is now, and it is in your hands," he told the commissioners.  "Expand what works and change the trajectory of thousands of lives in the city."

Related:

Group Offers Up $35 Million for Philadelphia Charter School Expansion

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