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City’s charter enrollment surpasses 67,000; many charters exceed enrollment caps

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

New data released by the School District on Tuesday show that charter enrollment in Philadelphia has swelled to 67,315 students, which is more than one-third of all K-12 students in public schools.

More than 1,500 of those students are enrolled in excess of enrollment caps for individual schools. Twenty charters are 10 or more students over their enrollment caps.

Four charters have more than 100 students in excess of their caps, led by Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter, where the District reports an enrollment of 1,302 despite an enrollment cap of 675.

The District has attempted to make those caps enforceable by writing them into its charter agreements. But this has not prevented the state from paying some charters directly for students enrolled in excess of the caps.

[Update:] A District spokesperson said Walter D. Palmer and four other charters have been billing the state for enrollment in excess of the caps. Other charters have not tried to secure payment from the state for more than the authorized numbers of students.

The four are Delaware Valley, Discovery, KIPP Philadelphia, and Richard Allen Preparatory. Combined with Walter D. Palmer, they have enrolled more than 1,000 students beyond their approved numbers.

The unexpected growth in charter enrollment — which is partially attributable to schools exceeding their caps — is projected to put the District about $25 million over its $675 million budget for charter payments this year, not counting transportation costs.

The District’s overall budget situation, including charter costs, will be the subject of a report at the Feb. 20 School Reform Commission meeting. No SRC action is required at the meeting. Charter costs and special education costs have been the two big challenges to keeping this year’s District budget in balance, according to Matthew Stanski, the District’s chief financial officer. [End update]

Another striking fact from the District’s charter enrollment report is that more than 30 of the city’s charters — including many of the charters that boast high test scores — have enrollments substantially below their enrollment caps. In all, the city’s underenrolled charters could take in 8,000 more students if they were to fill up to their authorized limit.

For example, Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter is authorized to to serve 2,525 students and has only 1,425 students enrolled, according to District data. Mastery Charter’s Lenfest campus has been approved to serve 1,200 students but currently has 555.

Citywide, the District’s report says there are just over 60,000 students in brick-and-mortar charters, 15,000 of those being in Renaissance charters — neighborhood schools placed under outside management to lead a school-turnaround effort. That total is up more than 5,000 students from last school year.

And 7,100 Philadelphia students are in cyber charters.

The District anticipates spending $700 million on charter school payments this school year, according to spokesperson Fernando Gallard.

The per pupil payment from the District to each charter is $8,597 for each regular education student, and $22,242 for each special education student. In all, there are 57,935 regular education students enrolled in charters and 9,920 special education students.

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