This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Charter school proponents flooded City Hall on Tuesday to demonstrate their political clout, urge the appointment of a new Board of Education that will be charter-friendly, and draw attention to their ongoing dispute with the District over conditions for charters’ operation and renewal.
Several City Council members attended the start of the rally, which filled the Mayor’s Reception Room to overflowing and sent scores of people to a second room down the hall. Parents, teachers, and students held signs such as “School board for all” and “Stand with charters.”
“We are for charter schools,” said City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell before leaving to attend another event. “We know how the parents in the community feel about them — they love them, and they feel they are safe there.”
Mayor Kenney appointed a 13-member nominating committee that will submit to him 27 names, from which he will choose a new nine-member board to replace the School Reform Commission. The SRC is a state-dominated body that has run the District for 17 years and was installed in part to usher in a “portfolio” model of schooling that included charters and other schools that were privately managed.
With the return of local control and the enhanced power of the mayor and Council in driving school policy, charter leaders are concerned about maintaining the commitment to this approach. Now, 70,000 students attend 84 charters in the city – about 35 percent of those in publicly funded schools.
Regarding board appointments, proponents said they aren’t looking to push particular people as “charter representatives” and maintain philosophical divisions and rivalries, but rather to have all the members recognize that they represent all students, including charter students.
Marc Mannella, CEO of KIPP Philadelphia, which runs five schools in the city and has been approved to expand, said: “Some people say that we have 30-plus percent of the students in the schools, so we should have 30-plus percent of the members be pro-charter. But that’s not what we want. We want nine people, all of whom understand that public education includes children in all schools – charter, magnet, neighborhood. We want nine people who want what’s best for all children.”
In Pennsylvania, charter schools are authorized by the district where they are located, which can set up problematic rivalries, especially when all the schools are dipping into the same inadequate funding pot. For years, charter operators have had a testy relationship with the District’s Charter Schools Office over the conditions under which charters are approved, renewed, and evaluated.
Since April 2016, when a rebooted charter office set more stringent requirements for evaluation, 17 charter schools that have been recommended for renewal by the Charter Schools Office have tussled over specific conditions and refused to sign new agreements. (There are three other schools without signed agreements for various other reasons.)
These operators accuse the charter office of “overreach” and of threatening their autonomy by insisting on unreasonable academic conditions, while reserving the right to change benchmarks, impose new operations requirements, and withhold payments at will. For instance, in evaluating a school’s academic performance, some are placed in “peer groups” that include selective admission schools, which charter leaders say is unfair because they choose students by lottery.
That problem has apparently been addressed, but there are other areas of dispute.
“The language [in the proposed contract] allows the SRC to change the rules at any time for any reason,” said Scott Gordon, CEO of Mastery Charter Schools, which operates 14 charters in the city, most of them former District schools that were ceded to the organization for turnarounds. Mastery now has five renewal agreements that it has refused to sign.
“The problem is it doesn’t matter whether it’s an SRC or a school board or whatever, but whether the process and policies are based on bad information and bad procedures going in,” said Larry Jones, CEO of Richard Allen Charter School. “If you have bad procedures going in, that can’t help but tarnish outcomes.”
Charter leaders and District officials have been “talking” regarding these disagreements regularly. On Thursday morning, the SRC’s policy committee will meet to air proposed amendments to the policy about whether charters can be amended during their term, for instance, to add students. It was compiled with input from the charter sector. Right now, state law doesn’t provide for mid-term charter amendments.
The District is also planning to unveil a new charter renewal framework that some officials said addresses charter operators’ concerns. Most charters are authorized for five years at a time, after which they are evaluated and recommended for either renewal or non-renewal based on their academic, operational, and financial health.
District officials have disputed the charters’ complaints and maintain that they need to maintain flexibility with conditions on charters so they can be responsive to state and federal benchmarks, especially regarding academic standards, which are often revised. They issued the following statement:
The number one goal for the Charter Schools Office is to ensure all students are served equitably and have access to a high quality education. We will continue to work directly with every charter school to ensure they are providing the highest possible quality options for students and families. The standards we want are aligned to national standards and best practices for accountability and quality charter school authorizing, and similar to what these charter schools agreed to and signed in prior years.
Clearly, Kenney will be threading a fine needle as he seeks to assemble a school board that satisfies all the education constituency groups.
Kenney said at an event Monday morning that he had been meeting with charter representatives and that they told him they were happy with the composition of the nominating panel. It includes two people on the board of the Philadelphia School Partnership, which advocates for charter expansion and distributes improvement grant money to selected charter, District, and Catholic schools.
There have been complaints from education activists that the nominating panel proceedings for the new school board aren’t transparent enough.
Kenney defended the decision to close the nominating panel deliberations to the public, saying that is necessary to protect the privacy of potential nominees who, for instance, may not yet have informed their place of work that they have made themselves available. The school board job is time-consuming, often controversial, and unpaid.
The only public meetings were its opening session and the last one, during which it will vote on the 27 nominees.
Still, said the mayor, the selection process “will be transparent,” citing hearings in every neighborhood to describe the process and City Council’s ability to question his nine nominees before they are seated – but not the 27 people whose names are submitted to him.
In their effort to get a school board satisfactory to them, charter school leaders have been courting City Council, which has no formal role in the nomination process. Legislation to include them cannot be passed in time to affect this round of nominations because there has to be a vote to amend the City Charter. The new board is scheduled to take control of the District from the SRC on July 1.
At the charter schools rally, parents extolled the idea of having more choice and gave speeches about how charters saved their children from dead-end neighborhood schools.
Said parent Crystal Morris, who sent two sons to Boys’ Latin Charter School: “Please work with the mayor to ensure that the new school board is representative of all its stakeholders and every member is committed to providing a quality public education for all students, regardless of zip code, race, or economic status.”