This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Charter school advocates rallied outside District headquarters Wednesday morning, again complaining that the School Reform Commission and its Charter Schools Office overregulate charters and refuse to collaborate on what the advocates would consider reasonable oversight policies. The rally took place the day before the SRC’s planned consideration of Policy 406, which sets ground rules for how a school can amend its charter before it is up for five-year renewal. A letter addressed to the SRC, signed by representatives of more than 60 of the 84 charters in the city, said adoption of those ground rules will "set up a lengthy and contentious policy (and likely legal battle) that will last beyond the SRC’s existence." It asks for appointment of a "working group" to draft "a reasonable and updated" policy before any vote. The SRC is scheduled to review the policy at Thursday’s meeting, putting it on track for final adoption in March. The continued public pressure comes in the waning days of the SRC, which will cease to exist July 1 as the District returns to local governance under a Board of Education appointed by Mayor Kenney. Charter schools, which educate about 70,000 students in the city, have been warring with the SRC’s charter office over myriad issues, including the degree of their independence to change location or educational programming and whether they are subject to enrollment caps. "If enacted, Policy 406 will restrict our ability to properly and adequately serve our students," said the letter. Speakers at the rally said that charter students, on the whole, outperform their District counterparts, citing an analysis of state data on 3rd-grade reading by the advocacy group Philadelphia Charters for Excellence. The speakers were flanked by parents and students from several nearby charters, some holding signs that said: "Be my Valentine SRC, Table #406." "We have to stop [the SRC] misleading the public saying that charters are not working for parents. … They are," said Herbert Mohammed, who has two daughters who attended Mastery-Pickett in Germantown. One graduated and is at Penn State, and the other is an honor-roll sophomore, he said. "It’s easy to see that Mastery-Pickett provided a richer experience for my daughters," he said. The letter also wants the charter office to "negotiate fair charter renewal agreements." Since April 2016, 17 charters have declined to sign their renewals, chafing at conditions imposed on them and declining to adhere to enrollment caps that they say are prohibited by state law. "We are ready and willing to work hand-in-hand for reasonable agreements and amendment policy," said Amy Hollister, CEO of Northwood Academy Charter in Frankford. Her school has been without a signed charter for three years. She said she objects to an enrollment cap. The SRC has been imposing enrollment caps because, it says, unfettered charter growth could bankrupt the District under the current state system dictating how charter schools are funded. But the charter sector argues that the state charter law — which hasn’t been revised in 20 years — prohibits districts from considering financial impact when approving and renewing charter schools. The matter has been litigated and produced several court decisions that have not resolved the issue definitively. In addition, there is disagreement on whether a summer state Supreme Court decision required the District to adopt a policy for amending charters before their renewal date. Such amendments are not provided for at all under the current law. "This policy, created hastily and with no stakeholder input, usurps charter school independence and innovation, violate’s PA’s Charter School Law and adds additional bureaucracy to charter school oversight," the letter says. The proposed policy has been revised significantly since last fall, after input from charter operators at committee meetings in November and December, said SRC member Christopher McGinley, chair of the SRC policy committee, in an interview after the rally. But the operators maintain that the new language, specifying when the charter school office needs to approve changes in location, educational programming or operations (such as if it replaces one charter management organization for another), is still too vague or too restrictive. "The new language didn’t change the situation," said David Hardy, retired founder of Boys’ Latin Charter School and now a board member of Ad Prima. "The charter office is not the superintendent of charter schools." He pointed out that, under the state charter law, each charter school is the legal equivalent of its own school district, although subject to approval and renewal by the school district in which it is located. McGinley said the committee took out language that implied oversight of daily operations. "We agree that charters have the responsibility to make day-to-day decisions about what’s best for kids," he said, adding that the provision is trying to target drastic changes in mission, location, grade span, or management arrangement. "The charter office does not see itself as the superintendent of charter schools, [but] is responsible to monitor the performance and be knowledgeable about what happens with taxpayer dollars," he said. He has said several times that policymaking is a public process and he would decline to meet in private with charter operators once that process had begun. After the rally, the group went inside the building to hand-deliver the letter, but only a few were let in by school police. No SRC members were present at the time. Hardy suggested that the SRC, in its waning days, should not take any action at all; McGinley said that would not be responsible. He pointed out that the new school board could amend the policy within months of taking over the District’s governance if it wanted. (Both McGinley and Hardy are said to be in contention for appointment to the new Board of Education, sources say.) After the rally, the District issued a statement: “We invite everyone to read the text of the proposed policy. This policy will allow charter schools the ability to amend their charters during their term — something charters cannot do right now because of the recent Supreme Court decision. If we do not enact this policy, we will fail students, parents and charters and limit the ability of high-quality charters to make important changes that they feel can improve educational opportunities for their students.”