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Despite grim District budget, Philadelphia charters seek 15,000 new seats

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

Twenty-one city charter schools are seeking to add more than 15,000 new students during the next five years. If granted by the School Reform Commission, the charters’ requests would eventually mean a new $110 million annual hit to the District’s already fragile bottom line.

District officials say a vote on the expansion requests, originally scheduled for April 18, is now expected to take place on May 16. The District’s charter schools office has not yet made its formal recommendations to the SRC.

Some of the charters’ seat requests are staggering.

The highly regarded Freire Charter School in Center City, for example, is looking to add 3,000 seats, which would quadruple the school’s current enrollment. Freire is just one of 16 charters that are at the end of their five-year terms. All but two are seeking to expand:

School Current enrollment cap Total new seats requested over next 5 years
Antonia Pantoja 700 30
Architecture and Design (CHAD) 620 200
Christopher Columbus 764 136
Discovery 620 430
Eugenia DeHostos 440 580
Freire 1000 3000
Hardy Williams — Mastery 1000 548
Imani 450 0
KIPP Philadelphia 810 1070
Maritime Academy 820 200
Math, Civics & Sciences 1160 200
Math, Science & Technology (MaST) 1250 2550
Pan American 717 83
Philadelphia Academy 1124 1276
Universal Institute 705 0
Young Scholars 248 1199

Seven schools are seeking mid-term modifications to their existing charters. Included in that group is the Folk Arts and Cultural Treasures (FACTS) charter in Chinatown, which is seeking 722 new seats, though none would be filled immediately.

"We look at our waiting list, which is over 5,000 students, and also the need for high schools that serve immigrant and [English-as-a-second-language] populations," said FACTS principal Susan Stengel.

Like Freire, FACTS received high marks in 2010 and 2011 on the District’s accountability rating system, the School Performance Index.

Helen Gym of Parents United for Public Education, who has been a vocal opponent of unchecked charter expansion at the expense of District-managed schools, is a founder of FACTS. Though she does not now have a formal role at the school, her husband, Bret Flaherty, is a member of the board.

Gym said that community-based, standalone charters like FACTS are faced with a "dilemma."

"There are charters who started out of a genuine interest to be in partnership with the District and to support its educational mission, not be in this insane situation where [charter growth] is the cannibalization of the district," said Gym.

Those schools, she said, "are actively trying to understand what our role should be. There’s just not an easy answer."

The full list of schools seeking modifications:

School Current enrollment cap Total new seats requested over next 5 years
Delaware Valley Charter School 600 1400
Folk Arts and Cultural Treasures 478 722
People for People Charter School 540 120
Richard Allen Preparatory 425 425
Russell Byers 485 365
Wakisha 400 600
Walter D. Palmer 675 625

Details of the charters’ seat requests were provided by the District.

Bedeviling details

In some cases, however, there are discrepancies between the District’s numbers and those provided by the charters themselves.

For example, District officials originally said that MaST Community Charter in Northeast Philadelphia was seeking 1,300 new seats over the next five years. But documents provided by MaST CEO John Swoyer show the school is actually seeking 2,550 students.

Smaller discrepancies exist between the District’s numbers and those provided by Russell Byers, Mastery-Hardy Williams, and Discovery.

All told, though, the charters’ requests clearly add up to more than 15,000 new charter seats – nearly double the schools’ existing enrollments.

District officials estimate each new charter seat results in a $7,000 net loss for the District each year.

The way Pennsylvania’s system for funding charter schools works, the School District makes a per-pupil payment for every Philadelphia student enrolled in a charter. That payment, however, is substantially more than the District is able to save by no longer having those students on its own rolls. The District must also pay charters for newly enrolled students who did not previously attend District schools.

Deepening budget woes

Last week, Superintendent William Hite and Chief Financial Officer Matthew Stanski unveiled a doomsday budget scenario for the city’s traditional public schools, saying that without $300 million from the state, city, and labor, individual school budgets will be cut by 25 percent – meaning no sports, counselors, art, music, or most other non-mandated activities.

Any new charter seats granted this year, said Stanski, will mean an even deeper budget hole that needs to be filled through new revenue, savings, or cuts.

"Any seat would obviously add a cost to the budget," said Stanski. He said the administration will come to a judgment as to how many new charter seats to approve. "The SRC will either vote it up or vote it down."

Either way, the SRC and District could find themselves in a quandary.

Several city charters have already gone directly to the Pennsylvania Department of Education to get payments for students whom the charters enrolled even though they had exceeded the caps written into their charter agreements with the District. Department officials say they are required by law to make those payments and to deduct a corresponding amount from the state subsidy to the District.

Discovery Charter in West Philadelphia is one of the charters that has taken this approach. Despite signing a charter renewal agreement in September 2008 that called for a "maximum of 620 students," Discovery enrolled 73 students over that cap this year, then successfully petitioned PDE for more than $360,000 in direct payments between July 2012 and February 2013. The state deducted that amount from its payments to the District.

At a rally last week to push for more charter seats, Discovery CEO Jackie Kelley said she hasn’t decided whether her school would continue to petition the state for students enrolled over its cap if the SRC decides not to grant Discovery’s expansion request.

"We haven’t gone to negotiations with the School District yet," said Kelley. "I won’t know until we have those conversations."

The advocacy group Public Citizens for Children and Youth last week released a set of recommendations for the charter renewal process, saying that, given the District’s budget problems, charter expansion should not get a "blank check."

The Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP), meanwhile, reiterated its call for the continued expansion of "high-quality seats," despite the District’s budget crisis.

"It’s hard to blame families who are choosing charter schools for the District’s financial woes," said the group’s executive director, Mark Gleason, citing statistics that indicate that charters have higher graduation rates than traditional schools, while costing less per student.

This story was reported through a partnership in education coverage between WHYY/NewsWorks and the Notebook.

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