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Advocate urges no ‘blank check’ for Philly charters seeking to expand

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

Updated | 4:05 p.m.

The Philadelphia School District’s two main priorities — balancing its books and expanding the number of "high-quality seats" in city schools — are poised for a head-on collision, perhaps as soon as next week.

Twenty Philadelphia charter schools, including some of the most sought-after schools in the city, are seeking to expand.

If granted, their requests to add students would almost certainly put the cash-strapped District many millions of dollars deeper into the red.

Why? Because Pennsylvania’s system for funding charters requires the School District to make a substantial per pupil payment for every student in Philadelphia who attends a charter. That expenditure (about $8,000 per regular education student and more than $18,000 per special education student) amounts to more per student than the District can save by not having to serve that student at a traditional District school.

Despite the stakes, District officials are refusing to release any details now about the charters’ requests, including the total number of additional seats they want.

The lack of information prompted anger from one key education advocate.

"It’s very disappointing that the full financial impact of charter renewals will not be known ahead of time," said Donna Cooper, the executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY).

"If the [School Reform Commission] is going to consider expansions – which I can’t understand, given the size of the District’s deficit – people have a right to know what would be cut."

Just two weeks ago, the SRC adopted a "lump-sum" budget for 2013-14 that includes a shortfall of at least $242 million. District officials hope to close that gap by extracting deep concessions from teachers and securing an influx of new cash from the state and city.

The bleak budget projections don’t account for any new charter expansions. Each new charter seat approved this spring will cost the traditional public school system roughly $7,000 per year.

District officials had previously indicated that charter renewal votes would take place on April 18, but spokesman Fernando Gallard said Monday that he could offer no timeline for a vote – or for when the total number of seats that each charter is requesting will be made public.

"This is still early in the process," Gallard said. "When we’re finished reviewing and analyzing the applications, the District will release the information."

Advocates stake out positions

The total number of new seats requested by charters this year could be staggering.

The highly regarded Mathematics, Science & Technology Charter (MaST) in Northeast Philadelphia, for example, has already announced that it is seeking to grow by 2,450 students by adding a new campus.

KIPP Philadelphia is hoping to add roughly 900 students.

ASPIRA of PA wants to add more than 600 seats in two of its charter schools in Eastern North Philadelphia. At Antonia Pantoja Charter, ASPIRA wants to expand its kindergarten and start a new high school. At Eugenio Maria de Hostos Charter, the group wants to formally add 30 seats so that it can be reimbursed for students it is already serving.

UPDATE: Young Scholars wants to increase its enrollment by 431 next year and by 1,199 students over five years.

Mastery-Hardy Williams, in West Philadelphia, is also looking to add seats.

And other popular destinations such as the Charter High School for Architecture and Design, Christopher Columbus, Freire, and Math, Civics & Sciences are all up for renewal and likely to be seeking to grow, too.

To some, that’s a good thing.

"The District should spend every dollar it has to fulfill its mission of giving every student access to a high-quality education," said Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP).

The group, dedicated to increasing the number of good school options in the city, recently awarded $3.4 million to bolster the expansion efforts of charter operators KIPP and Young Scholars.

Given the District’s budget predicament, Gleason said, "understandably there will be a limit" on how many new seats can be added. He also suggested that phasing in charter expansions over time may be an option.

But PCCY’s Cooper wants the District to take a much harder line.

She said the District’s dire financial straits have prevented the expansion of successful traditional schools. She said charters should be no different.

"We saw tremendous parental demand to expand Penn Alexander Elementary School only a month ago, but the District was unable to find the resources," said Cooper, who served as former Gov. Ed Rendell’s policy director for eight years, playing a major role in that administration’s approach to public education.

"We cannot expand even high-quality options, because we are an underfunded School District," she said.

Cooper said PCCY would issue its own recommendations about specific charters it believes should be closed due to poor academic performance.

"We just made tough decisions about closing low-performing [traditional] schools," Cooper said. "[Charters] can’t have a blank check."

Fourteen of the 16 schools up for renewal this year are seeking expansions. Six additional charters are seeking to expand through modifications to their existing charters.

Last year, the SRC approved 5,416 new charter seats, at a projected cost to the District of $139 million over five years.

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

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