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District: No charter expansion next year

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

Superintendent William Hite has decided not to recommend any charter school expansions for next year, saying it would be irresponsible to do so given the District’s financial situation.

"Given our dire financial prospects, we must ask for shared sacrifices from our partners," said Hite in a statement. "It would be irresponsible for the District to endorse charter expansion while asking our principals to do the impossible with school budgets."

Hite informed charter schools of his decision via conference call Thursday. Twenty-one charters collectively sought some 15,000 additional seats, which would cost the District around $500 million over the next five years.

As part of the School District’s efforts to streamline, the School Reform Commission has voted to close 24 schools by next September, most of them underutilized.

Facing a $300 million shortfall, Hite sent principals school budgets last week that left no money for anything besides a principal and the mininimal allowable complement of classroom teachers based on class-size limits in the teachers’ contract.

The District is seeking to close the gap by getting more revenue from the state and city as well as deep concessions from the teachers’ union.

Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership and a member of the Great Schools Compact, which is seeking to increase high-quality educational options in the city, called the announcement "tough news."

"But I understand the District’s position and I think most of the schools do as well," Gleason said. "If you look at the big picture, the District has shown a strong commitment to increasing access to quality schools of all types, but they have a budget hole and they don’t want to spend money they don’t have. I understand that."

In making the announcement, District leaders said that they would revisit the five-year financial plan to "identify funds for charter school expansion in future years, provided adequate financial resources exist."

Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn said that "we do not anticipate being in this situation forever, and we are committed to continuing to expand all high-performing schools, both District and charter, in the future."

In its statement, the District said it would develop a more rigorous evaluation system for charter schools — likely to be tough given deep cutbacks in the central administration. The office that monitors charters now operates with just a handful of people.

Officials also plan to revamp the charter evaluation, renewal, and modification process. The District will evaluate charters each year, redouble efforts to close low-performing charters, allow only high-performing charters to apply for expansion, and "work with high-performing charters to develop more flexible approaches to expansion requests."

“In order to fulfill our commitment to our students, we must hold all schools to the same standards of performance, equity, and safety,” Hite said in the statement.

The District plans to go ahead with plans to convert three low-performing schools to Renaissance charter schools next fall.

Members of the Great Schools Compact, which includes the District, charter schools, and the archdiocese, have joined forces to lobby for additional funds from Harrisburg and City Hall. Mayor Nutter has said that the city is committed to finding the $60 million the District needs, but there are no details yet on how that money might be raised.

Harrisburg, on the other hand, has publicly been mostly cool to the District’s request for $120 million more in revenue. The District is currently in negotiation with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, from which it is seeking the equivalent of a 10 percent cut in pay and benefits as well as a restructuring of the entire compensation system.

Harrisburg is also considering several bills that would change how charter schools are funded. Now, charter funding is tied closely to what the authorizing district spends, with charters feeling the effects a year later. So, if the District is unable to close its $300 million gap, the money that charters get the following year will decline by 12 percent.

Charter funding in Philadelphia for 2014 will top $700 million and accounts for about 30 percent of the District’s operating budget. There are nearly 55,000 students enrolled in 84 charters in the city. Last year, the School Reform Commission voted to add more than 5,400 charter seats between now and 2017.

"This situation underscores that charters and the District are in this together," said Gleason. "What is clearly needed here is a multi-faceted solution that includes new revenues, cost savings, and increased flexibility for District management as well as school-level management."

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