This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Your browser does not support the audio tag. Should there be more charter schools in Philadelphia?
That’s the question being weighed by the School Reform Commission as it reviews 40 applications from operators hoping to open new schools.
With the race to become Philadelphia’s next mayor heating up, the candidates were asked to contemplate the issue.
Although the SRC will make its decision long before the next mayor would have any influence, taking a position on charter expansion is one way that candidates can differentiate themselves in a race where all will call for the state government to increase funding and implement a student-weighted funding formula.
The question is not as straightforward as it may seem.
With each new charter that the SRC approves, the cash-strapped School District, which has no taxing authority, will incur additional costs. Assuming that the charters would open next year, these costs would add to next year’s projected budget deficit – eventually being resolved through additional funding or additional cuts to the district’s existing schools.
But the SRC is aware that with each rejection letter it sends, applicants can appeal to a state board that has the power to override its decision.
Anthony Hardy Williams
State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, considered the front-runner in the mayor’s race at this point, has long championed the charter sector.
In his failed 2010 bid to become the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, he attracted record campaign sums from a pro-charter and pro-voucher PAC endowed by the founders of the Conshohocken-based investment firm Susquehanna International Group.
Of this year’s slate of charter candidates, Williams took a measured tone, saying that the SRC should "work in concert" with Superintendent William Hite and consider new applicants "in the context of what revenue we currently have."
"Regardless of what new idea we have, we have to pay for it," he said, adding that the state must return the budget line — axed by Gov. Corbett — that helped districts defray the added costs of charters.
"Charter school reimbursement has to come back so we can stop with the tension – charters vs. traditional publics – and get to the business about a quality public school experience, which includes charters and magnets and neighborhood schools."
Given the District’s dire fiscal constraints, Williams was asked whether he could foresee a scenario in which the SRC would deny all charter applicants.
Williams said the SRC could at least authorize as many charter seats as those lost in the midyear closings of Walter Palmer and Wakisha charter schools. Together the schools had signed agreements for 1,075 students.
"That at a minimum we can do," he said.
In its deliberations, Williams also said the SRC should count on Gov.-elect Tom Wolf bringing about "a historic consequence" in terms of how Pennsylvania funds public education.
"There are a whole host of things that [the SRC is] going to have to project this year in this budget not knowing necessarily where the finances are, including charters," he said. "My hope and belief is that they will be making making decisions about charters certainly from a fiscally responsibly perspective, but also from an academic performance perspective, from a quality seat perspective, from a safety in schools perspective. All those things should be in the mix."
Citing M. Night Shyamalan’s book How I Got Schooled, Williams said that if school officials, teachers and politicians spent more energy focusing on the city’s lowest-performing schools, "it would drive the needle of traditional public districts across the nation, certainly Philadelphia."
Williams would not name a favored applicant in this year’s pool. Mastery has submitted two applications.
"I don’t want to get into the picking and choosing business. I have an opinion, as most politicians do," he said. "But I really do believe we should entrust the hard details to educators and the folks who run those systems."
Former Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham said, "There’s a proper balance that should be struck between charter and public schools."