This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
In light of the disturbing findings of Philadelphia City Controller Alan Butkovitz’s recent investigation of 13 charter schools and the revelation that an ongoing federal investigation of several other charter schools in the city is under way, isn’t it time that we take a more careful look at the District’s Renaissance Schools plan?
Judging from the provider matches for half of the first 14 Renaissance Eligible schools, it is clear that this plan is going to rely heavily on turning District-managed schools into charter schools.
In the 2010-2011 school year, seven schools that are currently District-managed will be turned into privately-managed charter schools. In the event that Pennsylvania’s Race to the Top Funds application is funded by the federal Department of Education, it is possible that up to 62 more District-managed schools could be converted to charters over the next three years.
There are 67 charter schools already operating in this city. According to the city controller, they are drawing an estimated $300 million of public dollars from the District’s budget.
Presently there is little if any oversight by the School District of these charter organizations. How they spend public monies is apparently a rather private matter.
The scarce information that is made available to the public regarding the yearly operations of charter schools can be found in the annual reports that charter schools are required to file with the state Department of Education. These reports are sketchy, to say the least.
For example, take a look at the 2008-2009 annual report for the Hardy Williams Charter School (originally The Renaissance Advantage Charter School) founded in September of 1999 by State Senator Anthony Williams, the son of the late Hardy Williams.
There are many sections of this report that are not completed, and other areas contain mistakes. One rather glaring mistake is the reported amount of funding that is received at this school for regular education and special education students. The report states that the school receives $603.99 per regular education student and $1,278.83 per special education student. From examining the reports of other charter schools, it is obvious that the actual, standard rate for regular education students is $7,708.33 and the special education student rate is $16,760.03.
Using the state’s reimbursement rates for charter schools, I calculated that the Hardy Williams Charter School received $7,156,848 of taxpayer funds for the 2008-2009 school year. During this school year there were 858 students enrolled at this school. I looked at the demographics and budgets of District-managed schools that were located nearby the Hardy Williams School. Only one school in the area, Thomas G. Morton Elementary School, with an enrollment of 800 students, was close to that of the Hardy Williams Charter School enrollment.
During the 2008-2009 school year, Morton, a K-to-5 elementary School, received a total of $5,293,352 in its school budget. There are 42 members of the instructional staff at Morton School. At the Hardy Williams Charter School there are 46 members of the instructional staff. The District charged the Morton School budget $90,000 (the District average) for each teacher on its staff. The actual cost of a teacher at Hardy Williams Charter School is not listed in the state annual report.
The District offers the public access to the budget details of Morton School on the District website. The details of the Hardy Williams Charter School are not available on the Web. By reading through the entire Charter Annual Report, there are clues to be found as to what other positions have been purchased at this charter school. This information is incomplete and hardly as transparent as the information provided by the District regarding District-managed schools.
At Morton School there are two administrators (principal and vice principal), two secretaries, three full-time aides, two counselors, seventeen part-time aides, one nurse, and a school police officer. The total cost of personnel at this school is $5,083,418. Another $209,934 was spent on books, supplies, afterschool activities, professional development contracts, summer pay, etc.
If the Hardy Williams Charter School paid its 46 teachers at the same rate as the District-managed school and had the same number of other employees as the District school, it would have a total personnel cost of $5,434,418. This would leave a remainder of $1,722,430 to be spent on other costs. Also to be considered is the real possibility that the teachers at this charter school are paid less than $90,000 per year. If they were paid $60,000 per teacher that would leave another $3,102,430 that could be spent on other expenses. This is quite a sum of money.
It would seem that there is more than a sufficient amount of funding available to cover the $500,000 facilities rental cost that the Hardy Williams Charter School pays to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. This is the budget area that charter managers often cite when they make the argument that they receive less funding than District-managed schools. To judge whether this is an accurate argument is near impossible to do given the lack of transparency offered to taxpayers in regards to charter school budgets.
In the Morton budget, costs are attributed to each activity the school undertakes. This is not the case at the Hardy Williams Charter School. An inquiring taxpayer can only guess at how the public’s money was spent at this school. The Hardy Williams Charter School is not unique among charter schools in the city in regard to its lack of transparency of finances.
The District’s Office of Charter Schools allegedly monitors the operation of charter schools in Philadelphia. According to a quote attributed to Butkovitz in a philly.com post dated April 8, 2010, the District is failing in this regard.
“There was a complete and total failure of the Charter Office to monitor charter schools and hold them accountable for how they spend taxpayers’ dollars as mandated by the (state) Charter School Law,” he said.
The charter office, which is headed by Benjamin W. Rayer, is charged with implementing the Renaissance school plan that Superintendent Ackerman has proposed. The inability of Rayer and his staff to effectively monitor the activities of existing charter schools does not inspire great confidence that they can efficiently and appropriately monitor how taxpayer dollars are spent. If this is the case, why should we now compound this problem by creating even more charter schools?
Butkovitz was also quoted on April 7, 2010 in a philly.com post as saying:
"The way charter law is written and not enforced—there is a gigantic loophole through which people can profiteer."
“This is not supposed to be a vehicle for maximizing profit for operators and related parties,” he said.
Charter schools need to be held to the same level of accountability as District-managed public schools.
Before the Renaissance Schools plan proceeds to turn more District-managed schools into charter schools, a plan that holds charter schools to a higher standard of accountability must be put into place by the School Reform Commission.
A good start would be to require charter schools to make available to the public their school budgets on the District website in the same manner that District schools do.