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Charter cooperation driven by chance at Gates money

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

Philadelphia is one big city – are there any others left? – that has yet to receive big grants from the Gates Foundation, which has been spreading its money around the country promoting its vision of school reform.

But it seems now that the chance for a slice of the Gates largesse is the impetus that finally brought together District officials and the charter community to announce a "compact" designed to replicate high-performing schools and close down those that aren’t working.

The new School Reform Commission heard Wednesday from its executive advisor Lori Shorr and two spokespeople from the charter school community that they were ready to work together for – you guessed it – the sake of the children. They announced that a compact was in the works with the goal of replacing 50,000 seats in low-performing schools with better options for students.

The Gates Foundation has given about a dozen grants to support compacts in cities that work at reducing district-charter tensions and commit to closing or intervening in poor-performing schools — whether they be charter or traditional public. They started with nine $100,000 grants last fall. This year, they supported similar work in three more cities. A small number of cities are expected to receive larger grants of unspecified size.

"Through the District-Charter Collaboration Compact, districts will commit to replicating high-performing models of traditional and charter public schools while improving or closing down schools that are not serving students well," said a Gates press release about those first agreements. "Additionally, each city Compact addresses contentious and persistent tensions between district and charter schools, and identifies specific opportunities for the two groups to leverage each others’ strengths in pursuit of a common mission."

The SRC members were enthusiastic. "I’m very excited about this," said Wendell Pritchett. "We are both creating a new way of working together" and taking advantage of an opportunity to "get resources we desperately need."

SRC member Lorene Cary wasn’t quite so effusive when asking for a timeline of what happens next. "So everybody has agreed to be in the same sandbox and play nice," she said. After working out issues, "then we will try to go to Gates."

Shorr said the deadline for submitting a compact agreement to Gates is next week, but that a more detailed plan must be completed by March. She said that’s where the "hard work" would come in. She was backed up by Lawrence Jones, of the Pennsylvania Association of Public Charter Schools and Naomi Booker of Charters for Excellence.

They all talked about the historically contentious relationship between the District and charters. And working out a final accountability agreement could be difficult. There are now 80 charter schools in Philadelphia, including the Renaissance conversions. In the 13 years charters have existed in the city, only a handful have been closed for poor performance.

Shorr said Gates money could help with the turnaround schools — Promise Academies and the Renaissance charters. Plans for Promise Academies were scaled back this year due to lack of funds, while there are as yet no plans to create a new cohort of Renaissance charters for next year.

In addition, there has been a virtual moratorium on approving new charters, much to the chagrin of the charter community. Presumably in return for an agreement to be held to a clear set of academic and other standards, high-performing charters would have more leeway to expand. Shorr said the compact also would create a new charter-monitoring office that would report directly to the SRC, not to District administrators.

The state, city, and charter organizations have already signed on to the Compact, Shorr said. U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah also praised the effort: "Philadelphia can be a city of great public schools for every child, not just the lucky few. This decision took courage."

Shorr said she is taking comments on the draft language. The plan is for the SRC to vote on an official resolution next week.

Adam Tucker of Gates confirmed this week that "the Philly compact is under consideration" by the foundation.

Listen to Benjamin Herold’s radio report for WHYY.

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