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Charter law vote postponed, District to vote on 26 renewals next week

Universal gave up its last charter in Milwaukee this month.

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

The state House on Monday did not take an expected vote on HB97, legislation that would overhaul the state’s 20-year-old charter school law. Advocates and District officials have been lobbying against parts of the bill they say will make it harder to regulate charter expansion and quality.

At the same time, the District announced that the School Reform Commission will vote on 26 charter renewals next Monday, May 1, at a special 3 p.m meeting. In addition, it said it would consider three charter amendments at its Thursday meeting, to Keystone Charter, Laboratory Charter, and Russell Byers Charter. It has not yet posted the content of the amendments.

Despite concerns expressed by advocates and school districts, including the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, legislators sought to fast-track HB97, which was voted out of committee last week. While its leading sponsors called it a "work in progress" when it left the committee, it has not been amended.

SRC Chair Joyce Wilkerson was among those in Harrisburg Monday talking to legislators about the bill, which would have a bigger effect on Philadelphia than anywhere else. Philadelphia has half the charter schools in the state.

A statement shared with legislators said that the District "is committed to supporting legislation that expands high achieving charter seats," but added that in this bill, largely supported by the charter sector, "a lack of standards, transparency and accountability" will make it difficult to promote quality.

Other concerns include language that could allow charter schools that do not have a written agreement on enrollment caps to expand into more than one location. The District’s statement calls the provision "a clear mechanism for unlimited charter expansion without any guarantee of quality or community need."

It also said that plans for a standard "performance matrix" to be developed by the state do not include "clear financial and operational standards which would be part of any renewal or authorizing decision."

The bill would establish a statewide commission to look at how charters are funded.

As debates swirl over statewide charter law, Universal Companies earlier this month gave up control of the last of the three charters it had operated in Milwaukee, Universal Academy for the College Bound.

Milwaukee is the only city besides Philadelphia where it runs schools. It exited two others in November.

“After operating the Universal Academy for the College Bound (UACB) Webster Campus for the last three years, Universal Companies/UACB believed that returning the schools to the Milwaukee Public School (MPS) was the best option for the scholars, parents, administrators, community, and more importantly, the academic success of the students attending," Universal said in a statement. The company said it was "unable to implement a ‘community school model,’ so in the interest of the children and staff, we decided to work in tandem with the MPS and allow them to oversee the daily operations and academic outcomes." Universal’s contract was due to end on June 30, 2018. The teachers at the school were given the opportunity to be hired by MPS to help assure a smooth transition, the statement said.

According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Universal returned its two other schools to MPS last November, saying that it had "limited resources" to operate the schools and that they needed more support than a "private nonprofit" could provide.

Universal operates eight charter schools in Philadelphia, but the District’s charter office has recommended terminating three of them due to lagging academics and problematic operational and financial conditions. They are Universal Bluford, Universal Audenreid, and Universal Vare.

Bluford successfully appealed, while the other two have been in limbo, with the SRC unable to muster a majority for any action. The five-member body has only four members currently. Estelle Richman, appointed by Gov. Wolf, is awaiting Senate confirmation.

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