This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
In the contentious debate about charter school expansion in Philadelphia, one key player is the Charter Schools Office, a relatively unheralded department that serves as the nexus connecting the School Reform Commission and District administration to the city’s 86 brick-and-mortar charters and their 64,396 students.
The office evaluates and makes recommendations about applications for new charters and renewals. That’s a big undertaking: Five new charter applications this school year, if granted, would eventually expand charter enrollment by 3,279. And 26 charters are requesting renewals for five more years of operation.
The office also annually evaluates each charter, reporting on everything from demographics to academic performance. It serves as the day-to-day liaison between charters and the District administration, coordinating and facilitating charter access to District resources. And it manages parent and community engagement activities for the District’s 21 Renaissance charter schools – schools that the District has turned over to charter management, but that mainly serve the neighborhoods around them, rather than selecting applicants from a citywide lottery.
For all its importance, the charter office has at times appeared to be a somewhat neglected body. Until the hiring in August 2015 of its current executive director, DawnLynne Kacer, it was without a permanent leader for more than two years. And its staffing was down to six at one point, drawing criticism that it was too small to do its job properly. Now it has 11 staffers.
Joseph Dworetzky, who served on the School Reform Commission from 2009 to early 2014, said in an interview that during his tenure, “It was a very unstable office in terms of leadership – it had three or four different heads.”
He noted: “There were times when I thought they really did not do an adequate job; there were other times when I thought they were making more progress. Overall, it was under-resourced and didn’t have the right vision for what it was doing,” especially in the area of charter oversight. “There were a lot of problems with individual charters, and that had people wondering what monitoring was being done.”
Financial projections of the consequences of charter growth also were often a weak point, he said.
“There is an enormous amount of money that is dependent upon the decisions made in that office, or at least the recommendations it makes,” Dwortezky said. “That requires resources and talent to manage that, and there have been deficiencies in both those categories.”
But in recent years, by most accounts, the Charter School Office has moved forward on a number of fronts and has played a more robust role, though some critics say it should be doing even more.
The office now has an experienced leader – Kacer was the executive director of charter evaluation and policy for the New York City Department of Education before coming to Philadelphia. She said in an interview that the staff of 11 “allows us to do the work that is necessary to insure quality choices for the students in charter schools in Philadelphia. There is always more that we could do if we had the staff and resources. But I don’t feel that we are not doing work that, as an authorizer, we need to be doing.”
In 2015, Kacer said, the office began reporting directly to the SRC rather than the District administration.
“As a District authorizer, you would like to have as much independence as possible from the District, so the District leadership doesn’t feel that it is having to make choices between the District-operated schools and the charter-operated schools,” she said.
The office has, in recent years, focused more on charter accountability than it had in the past. Starting earlier this year, for example, the office has provided information to the public through Annual Charter Evaluation (ACE) reports posted on the District’s website.
“By the time a [charter] school comes up for renewal, they will have four annual ACEs that reflect the same framework they are being evaluated on for renewal, so there should be no surprises,” Kacer said.
The charter office has shown that it has teeth in enforcing academic and financial standards on several recent occasions. The most prominent example was its recommendation in the spring that four Renaissance schools should not have their charters renewed – Olney Charter High School, John B. Stetson Charter School, Vare Promise Neighborhood Partnership Charter School, and Audenried Promise Neighborhood Partnership Charter School. The first two are operated by ASPIRA Inc., and the last two by Universal Companies. The SRC has twice tabled the motion against renewal, leaving the schools open and their fates unresolved.
Philadelphia City Council member Helen Gym, a longtime public education advocate, said in an interview that the office’s nonrenewal recommendations are an “encouraging sign,” as is the District’s decision not to create any more Renaissance schools next school year.
“It is establishing some level of standards that is definitely needed,” she said. But she said that it is “deeply troubling … that we’ve got an SRC that is working against the advice of its own experts” by not acting on the office’s recommendation against renewing the four charter contracts.
And there is much more that needs to be done, Gym said. The ACE reports, she said, need to separate out much more data, including “a lot more indications of how special education services and language services for immigrants and limited English speakers are being carried out. I think there’s a lack of information around that.”
Eliminating what Gym called “sweetheart deals” that she said give some Renaissance charter school operators special breaks on such costs as building rental, utilities, and some student services is also a priority.
Earlier this year, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the SRC cannot force charters to limit their expansion and that charters can appeal rejections to the state Charter School Appeals Board. That could lead to massive charter growth in the next few years.
Gym said she thinks the Charter Schools Office and the SRC should respond by intensifying their efforts to set a high “quality standard” for charters and sticking with it.
“Philadelphia should not move forward with charter schools that are not serving our students,” she said. “If we have to send 10 [charter rejections] up, or 50 up” to the charter appeals board, that is all right. “Establishing a clear standard and taking action on that standard is the most important thing.”
Dworetzky said that in the wake of the court’s decision, the office should focus more on helping the public understand its dire implications.
“People are delusional if they think that the current level of funding can support the system that has now been created,” he said. “There seems to be no appetite to fund what it will really cost to fund these two separate systems. The Charter Schools Office … should be making projections of the consequences of charter expansion. We have to look at the data, look at the projections, and show how this will affect every taxpayer in the city.” Jared Piper PHL Council Fellow