This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
In a meeting that featured protests and controversy, the School Reform Commission approved five new charter schools on Feb. 18, denying most of the 39 applications it had received.
The five members were caught between a rock and a hard place. Newly elected Gov. Wolf had said he thought Philadelphia could not afford new charter schools. Republican House Speaker Michael Turzai visited Philadelphia twice to say he expected multiple charter schools to be approved.
Independence Charter was allowed to open a new elementary school in West Philadelphia. KIPP was approved to add to its enrollment and officially establish KIPP DuBois as a high school at an already-existing site. MaST Community Charter will open a new school in the Lower Northeast and Mastery a new K-5 school at the old Gillespie Middle School, adjacent to Mastery-Gratz High School. Freire will establish a new high school called Freire TECH.
Even these applicants did not get all they wanted. MaST, for instance, sought a K-12 school with more than 750 students but was granted a K-8 charter for 500. The approvals were for three years, rather than five, and for the most part the SRC demanded slower growth and attached more conditions than the operators wanted. In total, the new charters will enroll close to 2,700 students.
And although all the approved charters were from operators that run popular and well-regarded schools in the city, several established charter providers were denied. String Theory, which operates an arts-focused elementary school in South Philadelphia and a new high school, wanted to open four new schools. All were rejected.
Most of the rejections were unanimous. None of the approvals were. Commissioner Marjorie Neff voted against all 39 proposals.
A state bill that authorized Philadelphia to impose a cigarette tax to pay for schools had ordered the SRC to abide by state law, which requires districts to accept charter applications every year and gives charter applicants the right to appeal denials to the state. The SRC had used its special powers to waive portions of the school code, citing fiscal distress, and had not considered new charter applications for seven years.
At the more than five-hour meeting, charter advocates and charter opponents both claimed to have the best interests of students at heart.
Charter operators fervently argued that they were creating new, better choices for families. Opponents were equally fervent that money spent on charters would deprive already-depleted District schools and their students of vital services.
The SRC ordered all signs removed at the meeting, spurring cries that First Amendment rights were being breached. Anti-charter activists frequently disrupted speakers, and four were arrested and cited for disorderly conduct for their part in a planned protest after the SRC’s first vote to approve.
The SRC walked a fine line between considering each application on its merits – following advice of legal counsel – and acting with the District’s financial condition in mind. The commissioners maintained that the new charters would have minimal financial impact over five years – but assumed in that calculation that the new seats would be offset by the loss of seats in two charters that abruptly closed this school year.
Several of the rejected applicants have already said that they planned to appeal the denials to the state Charter Appeal Board. They have 60 days from the day of the vote, or until mid-April, to do so.