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SRC approves some additional charter school seats

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

Apparently responding to a furious lobbying campaign that started last Friday, the School Reform Commission approved some charter expansions for next year, although not to the level the operators had requested.

More than 20 charter schools has asked for an additional 1,515 seats, and the SRC approved 1,042 for the 2010-2011 school year.

Overall, the charters had requested an additional 9,262 seats over five years, which they said they needed to adequately plan and secure funding for facility needs. Current charter enrollment is about 37,000.

The decision still left the charters with long-range planning issues. But the SRC and Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said that the District too has planning issues because of budget uncertainties. It is still awaiting approval of the state budget to see how much it will get in basic education aid and how much is included for charter reimbursement.

"We can’t plan either," Ackerman said. "Right now, we’re all in the same boat." She said she felt the limited, one-year expansion was "fair, which is why the SRC voted for it."

SRC members and Chief Business Officer Michael Masch said that granting the full five-year requests made by the charter schools would cost the District an additional $266 million over that period. Now, charter schools, which educate about 37,000 students, cost the district about $344 million each year.

The expansion seats okayed for next year will cost an additional $7.3 million, Masch said, an amount already provided for in the budget approved for 2010-11.

Charter school supporters had packed the SRC meeting and some appeared surprised at the SRC’s action. Several who had signed up to speak put off their remarks, saying they were no longer relevant.

On Friday, Chief of Charter, Partnership and New Schools Benjamin Rayer conducted a conference call with charter operators. Many came away with the impression that he said that the SRC would not vote on the expansion request on June 16. Rayer conveyed a similar impression in conversations with reporters, saying that the several SRC members wanted to wait until a clearer picture of the District’s financial position emerged.

Guy Ciarrocchi, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Charter Schools Coalition, said that following that Friday conference call, "there was an intense lobbying campaign, public and private." His organization "as a group, and individual applicants…reached out to SRC members and staff."

Ciarrocchi said that while he regarded the SRC action as an "important first step, a small victory," the SRC must improve and streamline how it considers charter expansion requests.

"This process didn’t work," he said. "No other school district in the state is still making decisions in June. Philadelphia doing this does a disservice to everyone." Philadelphia has about 67 of the 125 charter schools in Pennsylvania.

The SRC had planned to approve the expansions by April or May "and failed to meet its own deadlines," he said.

As for the financial concerns, Ciarrocchi said that if done right, the District can save rather than lose money on charters by consolidating its own schools more quickly.

Rayer told the SRC before it voted that his office’s recommendations on the one-year expansion requests had been based on consideration of a school’s academic record and whether it had the capacity to help relieve overcrowding in District schools.

"Once funding from the Commonwealth is better understood, as well as our citywide facilities master plan, we can make final decisions about increasing enrollments over the next four-year period," he said.

Commissioners Joseph Dworetzky and David Girard-diCarlo both spoke to the financial and long-range planning concerns before the vote was taken. Dworetzky noted that there are some 44,000 empty seats in District schools today, although some neighborhoods remain overcrowded. He said that the facilities process for both District and charter schools had to be "rationalized," perhaps "co-locating" District and charter schools in the same building, as is done in other cities including New York.

"We must recognize that there are serious financial uncertainties confronting our state and our nation," Girard diCarlo said. He said that the District faces the loss of federal stimulus money as well increased pension obligations. "We can’t look at these things in a silo; we need to look at these things in their overall context," he said.

Commissioner Johnny Irizarry was the lone vote against the expansion, saying that he disagreed with the way Rayer’s office had used the overcrowding formula. He said it made assumptions that some Center City charters could serve students in overcrowded neighborhoods.

Marc Mannella, CEO of KIPP Philadelphia, described the vote as a "victory." KIPP, which operates two middle schools, had requested 230 seats for kindergarten and ninth grade to start building an elementary and a high school and was awarded 150.

While 80 students will be disappointed and its budget will be in "chaos….we will make it work," he wrote to supporters.

In total, 18 schools were granted more slots, including two – Multi-Cultural Academy and Universal Institue – that had not asked for any new students for the coming year but only for subsequent years.

The SRC also renewed the charters of 11 schools for five years, all of those that were under consideration. Included in the renewals were clauses that specified the schools will need to meet academic achievement goals.

Ackerman called this a breakthrough. "We come out of this process with school report cards, which we couldn’t get before," she said. Going forward, there will be more transparency and more ability to get data from charter schools. "It’s a really important element in moving forward in renewals with the SRC," Ackerman said.

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