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SRC denies six charters and approves one with conditions

SRC Richman questions Kacer
Greg Windle

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

UPDATED 2:51 pm Friday

The School Reform Commission denied six of seven applications for new charter schools on Thursday, heeding evaluations by the Charter School Office and information from follow-up hearings that raised significant questions about most of them.

Among those rejected were an elementary school in Yorktown proposed by Mastery, the largest charter operator in the city; two schools to be managed by ASPIRA Inc. of Pennsylvania; and a middle school on the Franklin Towne campus in Bridesburg, which already provides grades K-12.

Also rejected were bids from two new operators. The Asociacion Puertorriquenos en Marcha (APM), a community organization that builds affordable housing and runs preschools, wanted to open a K-8 school in North Philadelphia for 702 students. And Hebrew Public, a nonprofit that runs four schools in New York City, sought to operate a dual-language K-8 school in East Falls in which students would learn Hebrew and study the history of Israel.

The one that was approved, a third MaST school in Far Northeast Philadelphia, had significant conditions attached. One condition cut its planned enrollment in half – from 2,600 to 1.300. Another required that the school accept half its students from certain zip codes so that it can attract a more diverse population. And under a third, it must work to provide transportation to kindergarten students, because the District doesn’t provide transportation for them and the expectation is that many students will travel some distance to the school.

With the conditions, the MaST vote was 5-0 in favor.

ASPIRA’s two schools were rejected on 5-0 votes, with the commissioners citing the tangled finances and high debt of its existing schools and the parent company. The others were rejected by 3-2 votes. Commissioners Christopher McGinley, Estelle Richman, and Chair Joyce Wilkerson voted to deny the applications. Bill Green and Farah Jimenez voted to approve them.

The commissioners expressed many concerns about ASPIRA, one of which was about proposed lease agreements, which would have put the entire cost of maintaining and repairing the buildings in the new charter school’s budget. DawnLynne Kacer, head of the District’s charter office, called the arrangement “unusual.”

And McGinley asked about ASPIRA’s management agreement, which he said seemed to give the charter operator the unilateral right to raise its fees. The commissioners also wanted to know what the management fee would cover, because many expenses were itemized elsewhere.

Kacer was asked by Richman how ASPIRA responded to requests to explain what services the school would receive for the fee. Kacer said it wasn’t made clear in the application or in the subsequent hearing.

In the charter office’s evaluations of ASPIRA’s existing schools, it has repeatedly cited ASPIRA’s growing debt and the intermingling of funds among individual charters and the parent organization. In December, the SRC voted to start the non-renewal process for two other ASPIRA charters, Olney High School and Stetson Middle School.

Mastery’s rejection vote was 3-2, with McGinley voting no in part because of concerns about a lack of demonstrated community support, after Kacer explained that the school submitted no letters of intent to enroll and planned to pull students off their waitlist for other schools.

Wilkerson, who was another no vote, said she “had concerns about the capacity of the operator to take on another school.” Mastery is opening a new K-8 school in the old Gillespie Middle School building in the fall and is expanding its enrollment in Camden. The new school would have opened in 2019.

Joe Ferguson, Mastery’s chief operations officer, said later that he was “extremely disappointed” with the SRC vote and argued that the concerns about community support and capacity to operate the new school were “nonsensical.”

The District rarely rejects Mastery bids for new schools, although it did once before in the case of a turnaround school, Wister Elementary. That bid, however, was later revived and approved despite allegations of insider dealing from activists.

Mastery and the District’s charter office have clashed recently over the terms of charter renewals, with Mastery declining to sign charter agreements for five of its schools. Asked whether its disagreements with the District could have inspired the SRC to reject Mastery’s bid for a new school, Ferguson demurred.

“I don’t believe that they don’t like us or like us,” said Ferguson of the charter office. “I believe that they have a responsibility and they’re taking that responsibility seriously. And we have an obligation to families and we’re taking that responsibility seriously.”

Maurice Jenkins, the parent of a student at Mastery’s Cleveland campus, sounded surprised at the SRC’s decisions.

“I don’t know why you would deny a school, period,” said Jenkins. “I’m assuming it has something to do with money or being in the inner city. I don’t know.”

The SRC has consistently said it does not believe state law allows it to cite financial considerations when it rejects charter applications. Some charter advocates have, however, accused the commission of nitpicking at applicants as a way of slowing charter growth.

Several speakers urged the SRC to reject all the applications on principle, arguing that every new charter deprives students in District schools of needed resources.

Stephen Flemming, who has taught in the District for 11 years at Kelly and now at Martin Luther King, gave public testimony urging the commissioners to reject all charter applications.

“While I hear the argument for increased school choice and options, I cannot agree with any decision to increase the number of charter schools,” Flemming said. “My fear is that to pay for these additional charter schools, students will go without nurses again, students will go without counselors again, students will go without teachers again, neighborhood schools will be closed again. I can’t help but wonder if my fears as a teacher and a product of this city will be realized.”

Other denied applicants also expressed disappointment. Nilda Ruiz, from APM, told the SRC that her preschool parents were begging for a better alternative in their North Philadelphia neighborhood. The school planned trauma-informed instruction, she said.

“There is such a high need in our community,” she said.

But the SRC members who voted against it thought that the budget presented was unrealistic, and McGinley in particular raised concerns that there wasn’t an adequate plan for special education students.

Jimenez, in voting yes, said the Latino community needs more high-quality school options.

Donald Price, a vice president at APM, said he was “angry” and felt the SRC had misrepresented their accounting practices in finding they had under-budgeted.

“They lied through their teeth,” he said. The schools’ accountant said that, if anything, they over-budgeted.

In rejecting Franklin Towne, commissioners cited issues with its budget and plans for special education students, among other concerns.

Representatives from Hebrew Public said that they would resubmit their application to correct the deficiencies cited by the SRC, which included the budget and plans to use teachers from a teacher education program not accredited in Pennsylvania. Jon Rosenberg, the CEO of Hebrew Public, emphasized that the school would teach the Hebrew language and Israeli history, but not religion.

Green, who voted in favor of approval, publicly urged them to resubmit.

The commissioners, in approving MaST’s application, emphasized that it needed to serve a population that more accurately reflected the demographics of the School District. Its current schools, MaST and MaST II, serve far more white students and fewer low-income students than the District as a whole.

The original MaST school has a student body that is 69 percent white, 8 percent black and 9 percent Latino. Less than 1 percent are English learners. According to the most recent annual charter evaluation report, just 21 percent of students are economically disadvantaged. Among District schools, the median poverty level is nearly 80 percent.

In the new MaST II, the demographics are somewhat more reflective of the District: 40 percent of the students are white, 23 percent black, and 19 percent Latino. Its poverty rate is nearly 42 percent, according to District figures, twice as high as that in the original school. And 7 percent are English learners, which is close to the city total of 8 percent.

MaST III was proposed as a 2,600-student school next to the Northeast Philadelphia Airport that would draw students from zip codes as far away as Southwest Philadelphia in order to meet diversity goals. However, with approval for just 1,300 students, the school will have to revise the budget and consider a new location.

Most of the speakers who urged the SRC to reject all new charters cited a “robbing Peter to pay Paul” scenario of depriving students in District schools in order to create new schools that don’t offer solid evidence that they are much better.

“I drove by the MaST school a couple weeks ago,” said Lisa Haver, co-founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, calling it a “beautiful building.”

“Every kid deserves to go to a school like that … but at Gideon [Elementary School] we’re looking at bugs crawling out of the drain,” Haver said.

Of charters in general, she said: “We don’t need them, we don’t want them, we can’t afford them. And we’re getting hosed by some of them.”

Amy Turner, a homeowner in West Philadelphia who is thinking about starting a family, said she doesn’t want to move to the suburbs, but sees the charter school system diverting money from the neighborhood public schools that she would prefer her child attend.

“I question why a charter school model that has been seen as substandard for more privileged suburban children is being pushed on those from a lower socioeconomic background,” Turner said, choking up and holding back tears. “My child and every other child in Philadelphia deserve to be treated as an investment in the future of our city, not as a commodity to be profited from.”

After the vote, with six of seven charter’s denied, Haver said: “I have to give the SRC credit. They really looked at the applications and took the conclusions of the charter school office seriously.”

The SRC is continuing a cautious approach to opening new charter schools; last year, it approved just one of three applications. In 2016, it approved three charters and voted down nine others.

This is the fourth cycle since the commission resumed considering new charter school applications after a hiatus ended as a condition of the passage of the cigarette tax. In allowing Philadelphia to impose the tax to raise money for schools, the state legislature required the SRC to resume its consideration of charters.

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