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SRC on charter hot seat

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

District staff are recommending that the School Reform Commission terminate two charter schools out of 16 that are up for renewal in April, the Notebook has learned, a decision that is likely to set in motion a scramble by the operators to keep the schools open.

District officials would not confirm that there are schools recommended for non-renewal and denied the Notebook access to most of the contents of the files on the schools seeking extensions.

But the Notebook was permitted to review charter school annual reports. That review showed that two charters which haven’t met academic improvement goals for most of their existence – Renaissance Charter School in Mount Airy and Germantown Settlement Charter in Germantown – also have serious financial issues or gaps in required reporting to the state, District, and IRS.

Both are middle schools; Renaissance enrolls just over 200 students, and Germantown Settlement just over 400 on two campuses.

The renewal recommendations for the 14 recommended charter schools all had conditions attached, sources said. Each fell short of state requirements in one or more areas including the percentage of certified teachers, financial disclosures for board members, documentation of insurance, plans for professional development, and yearly financial reports and audits.

“In fairness to everyone, we now have a much tighter process,” said LaVonne Sheffield, the District’s chief accountability officer. “There are growing pains that go with enhanced accountability.” Sheffield declined to divulge details of the charter recommendations.

If the SRC follows the staff recommendation, it will be the first time it has ever shut down a charter. One Philadelphia charter abruptly closed its doors in 2003 amidst legal difficulties and two others have had non-renewal hearings, but were ultimately allowed to stay open.

Currently, there are more than 60 charter schools in Philadelphia enrolling more than 30,000 students. Philadelphia has budgeted $317 million for charters next year; charter costs are the fastest growing item in its $2.3 billion budget.

The SRC must consider the charter renewals in light of a projected deficit of nearly $40 million next year – not counting any costs for new charters – and 17 applications for new charters that are in the pipeline. Eleven of those applications were deferred from last May due to the District’s budget crisis.

Donna Cooper, Gov. Rendell’s chief policy adviser, said that she favors charter expansion but that the SRC doesn’t have a “blank check” and must make “tough decisions and find a fair way to identify those doing well and those not doing well.”

Poorly performing charters should not be renewed “so they can make way for new charters,” she said.

The SRC is expected to consider the new and deferred charter applications in May.

The votes on renewals and new applications will be the first indication of whether members are willing to enforce a new charter policy the SRC enacted in December that sets priorities for charter expansion, such as replicating successful ones and locating them in overcrowded areas and among the most “underserved” students.

“The SRC is committed to the development and implementation of charter school policies that are transparent, accessible to the public, merit based, and equitable, and that incorporate best practices,” the new policy says.

Charters are paid for with tax dollars but are freed from many of the regulations that apply to traditional public schools. The idea is to give these schools more autonomy and provide more choices for parents, while holding charters more accountable for improving student achievement.

But by being lenient with consistently low-performing charter schools, the SRC limits its ability to open new campuses of higher-performing charters. One of the new applications, for instance, is from KIPP, a national network of successful charter schools that already has a charter on North Broad Street and wants to open a new one in West Philadelphia.

Little data is readily available to the public about charter performance other than test scores reported under the No Child Left Behind law and the portions of charter annual reports that are posted on the Pennsylvania Department of Education website.

But Renaissance and Germantown Settlement both have troubled histories, going though a succession of principals, struggling with academic improvement goals, and exhibiting spotty record-keeping.

For Renaissance, required independent annual financial audits – meant to provide assurances that a nonprofit organization’s financial management is sound and information is not false or missing –are not in the District files.

In addition, the school itself did not comply with Notebook requests to produce its tax return – the IRS Form 990 — which is mandated for all but the smallest nonprofit organizations. Completed 990 forms, one other source for charter school information, can normally be found online, at www.guidestar.org, and federal law says a nonprofit entity must also make them available to anyone who asks in person.

But the most recently posted Form 990 on the Web for Renaissance was from 2002.

Charmaine Thomas, the Renaissance business manager, said in a phone interview April 1 that the IRS has the wrong identification number for the school, which is why the 990 is not online. She said that a paper copy of the 990 form would be available at the school on April 4.

As for academic achievement, she said that the school had just hired a new principal and was making progress. Renaissance is in “Corrective Action I” status under No Child Left Behind due to poor state test scores. Last year, only about one third of the students scored proficient in reading and one in five reached proficiency in math.

“The PSSA is just one form of testing these children,” Thomas said. “We have an influx of new kids coming in, and we always have fluctuation up and down.” She said that the school is working on professional development for its teachers, has extended the school day, and sends several students to special admission high schools.

Principal Alana Walls, who previously headed a charter school in Camden, said that she had only been at Renaissance for two months and was not ready to speak about the school’s academic record or direction.

There is also evidence that Renaissance Charter included inaccurate information on its annual report filed with the state in 2007. Fred Poellnitz, a professor at Peirce College, is listed as a member of the board, but in an email he said he resigned from the Renaissance board in 2004. Thomas said that Poellnitz was on the board until 2006.

Germantown Settlement Charter’s most recent audit and 990 form, for 2006, indicate that it is operating with a shortfall of more than $400,000.

Germantown Settlement also has not made its academic achievement goals under No Child Left Behind until this year. After missing just one of its Adequate Yearly Progress targets, it successfully appealed its “Corrective Action II” status to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The rating was recently changed to “Making Improvement,” a PDE spokesman said, although the department would not release any information on why the appeal was granted, and the change is not reflected on the PDE website.

Last year 27 percent of students at Germantown Settlement reached proficiency in reading and 31 percent in math, numbers that showed some improvement from the year before but don’t significantly outstrip nearby middle schools, especially in reading.

Cornelia Swinson, a member of the charter school board, and GSCS principal Jeffrey Williams did not return the Notebook’s phone calls.

Several other charters up for renewal have fallen short of their “adequate yearly progress,” or AYP targets, including Renaissance Advantage in Southwest Philadelphia ("Warning" AYP status in 2006-07), Young Scholars in North Philadelphia ("Improvement II"), Philadelphia Academy in the Northeast ("Improvement II"), Discovery Charter in West Philadelphia ("Warning"), and Charter High School for Architecture and Design in Center City ("Making Progress"). Like District schools, charters can miss those goals by wide margins or just barely.

In general, the charter renewal process is conducted largely in secret. The School Reform Commission has rarely deliberated publicly prior to voting on whether to renew an application. In response to requests for information from the Notebook, the District’s general counsel ruled that charter renewal applications and most other documents in their files that could be used to assess charter performance are not public records until after the SRC has made a decision.

The District declined even to disclose to the Notebook a list of what information the District keeps in a charter school’s file.

“The renewal process happens totally behind closed doors,” said Saba Bireda, staff attorney with the Education Law Center.

ELC, a nonprofit legal group that handles many disability rights cases, hears from parents in both charter and District schools about their children not getting due process regarding discipline, special education, or expulsion. Bireda said that at some charters, many parents have complained that their children are discouraged from applying or encouraged to leave.

“But it’s completely impossible to tell how parent and community concerns about charter schools, including those we hear about and the District hears about, figure in if at all to the renewal process,” she said.

A report released last month by the state-funded Accountability Review Council (ARC) that took a close look at student test score data for charter schools in Philadelphia concluded that, as a group, they aren’t performing “substantially better nor substantially worse than District schools in improving student achievement.” The analysis was conducted by the RAND Corporation and Research for Action for the ARC.

Charters as a group look “quite similar” to District schools, despite their license to innovate, but they tend to be somewhat more segregated by race and ethnicity than traditional District schools, the analysis said.

The ARC report recommended that the SRC collect more data from charters on attendance, teacher absenteeism, professional development, parent satisfaction, and student discipline, suggesting that it beef up its charter school office and make this information available to the public.

“Until December, the District has applied few guidelines for approving, monitoring, supporting, and revoking the contracts with charter schools,” the report said, adding “…the SRC need not take a permissive role in monitoring charter school performance.”

But the District, by its own admission, has been hamstrung in its ability to monitor charters and has often faced resistance from charter operators when it has asked for information.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education does not scrutinize charter quality, but is largely a repository for required annual reports and audits. State law makes it clear that the charter authorizer, the District, is responsible for oversight.

That model has often troubled charter operators, some of whom feel that the District, as their “competitor,” shouldn’t be in a position to judge them, and arguing that excessive regulation defeats the purpose of charter schools.

“My issue is that the charter office is housed in public schools,” said Veronica Joyner, founder and chief executive of the Mathematics, Civics, and Sciences Charter School. “Oversight, in my opinion, should be an independent group.” MCSC, which serves students from grades one through 12, is up for renewal and has met all its academic improvement goals.

Joyner also said that if the District moves aggressively to close underperforming charters, it should close its own underperforming schools as well.

“Many of their schools can’t meet the standards,” she said.

Cooper, Gov. Rendell’s policy chief, said that she believes the “mixed model” of privately managed, District-managed and charter schools has resulted in citywide academic gains by providing a “wake-up call” to city educators.

She also said that the SRC and incoming CEO Arlene Ackerman will be challenged to “force the same accountability on underperforming [District] buildings as on underperforming charters. Children deserve a quality education no matter what setting they are in.”

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