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Charter operators press for changes in how schools are authorized

As Philadelphia prepares for its new school board, charter leaders are angling for independence from the District and pushing for friendly board members.

mcginley wilkerson charter policy meeting 2 1
Greg Windle

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

With the process of returning Philadelphia schools to local control well underway, charter school operators are taking the opportunity to seek long-desired changes in how charters are authorized. They are looking at models in other cities where such power lies directly with city government or is otherwise more independent of the school district.

On full display last week was the testy relationship between the charters and the District’s Charter Schools Office, which sets the rules for their approval and renewal and manages their evaluations. Now, the office reports directly to the School Reform Commission, whose days are numbered. A mayorally appointed Board of Education is scheduled to take over governance of the District on July 1.

“With the SRC going away, it is unclear whether [the charter office’s] reporting would go back to the District, to the new school board, or over to the mayor, or to an independent board,” said Stephen DeMaura, head of Excellent Schools Pennsylvania, which advocates for charter schools. “We would very much like to see … a different reporting lineage; that is how it is done in every other city in the country. A conversation is worthwhile.”

DeMaura mentioned Indianapolis, where there is a Mayor’s Office of Educational Innovation that authorizes charter schools.

The charters are also organizing parents and otherwise demonstrating political muscle in calling for Mayor Kenney to name Board of Education members who are committed to the needs of charter schools. Charters now educate nearly 70,000 city students, a third of the total.

But they are also pursuing legislation in Harrisburg that would shift charter authorization to the city government, under the belief that City Council members would be more sympathetic to their concerns.

City Council doesn’t have any formal input into Kenney’s appointments of the first nine members of the new school board, but they will undoubtedly have influence. A 13-member nominating committee is now assembling 27 names to submit to the mayor, who will pick the nine people serving on the new board.

Last Monday, charter leaders organized a rally in City Hall that was attended by several City Council members. The charter leaders pressed their case that the SRC and its charter office are imposing regulations that usurp the schools’ autonomy, stifle their innovation, and limit where they can move or locate. Since April 2016, 17 charters have refused to sign their charter renewal agreements and have continued operating without them, arguing that the terms presented by the District are unacceptable.

Among other complaints, charter officials maintain that the District’s regulators are repeatedly moving the goalposts when setting academic standards and that the finance office is improperly withholding payments from them. Some City Council members signed on to a “pledge” calling on the SRC and Superintendent William Hite to “immediately negotiate reasonable and fair charter agreements.”

“The language [in the proposed agreements] allows the SRC to change the rules at any time for any reason,” said Scott Gordon, CEO of Mastery Charter, which operates 15 schools in the city.

After the Monday rally, the charter officials turned their attention to a Thursday meeting of the SRC’s policy committee, which was considering changes to its guidelines for allowing charters to seek amendments to their agreements outside the renewal process. State law requires charters to come up for renewal every five years.

Authorizers are not required by the state to have an amendment process at all, but that hasn’t stopped these rules from also being the object of fierce and bitter debate.

The policy committee meeting turned into a contentious affair, with the leaders presenting their position and leaving in a huff.

“The policy usurps charter school independence and innovation, violates the PA charter school law, and adds additional bureaucracy to charter schools,” said a statement signed by more than 50 of the city’s 84 charter schools and read by Boys’ Latin CEO Noah Tennant. “If enacted, this policy restricts our ability to properly and adequately serve our students.”

Afterward, in interviews, they complained that District officials would not meet with them to hash out all their concerns. “We’re fine giving up some of our rights, but we need to have a conversation about it,” DeMaura said. “That’s where the breakdown is. A lot of it is procedural.”

School Reform Commissioner Christopher McGinley, chair of the policy committee, disputed the charter leaders contentions that they hadn’t been listened to, citing adjustments made in the proposed policy since last fall. The committee clarified language about when charters would have to seek approval for alterations in educational programming. The new language specifies that this would only happen if the school’s entire mission changed – from performing arts to STEM, say, or dual-language to Montessori – not for every new textbook series or tweak in a math program.

But McGinley said he specifically declined to meet the charter operators in private.

“I said, ‘This is a policy meeting, the sausage will be made here,’” he said. “This is a policy of the School District, it gets discussed and adopted in a public setting.” The full SRC is scheduled to give an initial reading to the policy on Feb. 15; a final vote will take place in March.

DeMaura said that the operators were fine about having a public dialogue, but that “there is a big difference between providing testimony and having a back-and-forth conversation about details.”

Both sides agree that that the amendment dispute is just the tip of the iceberg in the ongoing tug-of-war. Thursday’s meeting especially drew the charter operators’ ire because the amendment policy specifies that charters cannot pursue amendments without signed agreements.

At the same time, “Many of the longstanding disagreements weren’t going to get fixed by this policy,” McGinley said.

Also on Thursday, the District unveiled a new Charter School Performance Framework that, according to a press release, “gives parents, students, and charter operators greater clarity, predictability, fairness and transparency” in their evaluations. Charter leaders had input into the new framework, and so far they have not specifically lodged complaints about that.

“My impression is that it is moving in the right direction,” said DeMaura.

In general, what the charter operators are calling over-regulation, District leaders regard as quality authorizing.

Charter leaders have chafed in the past few years under the detailed scrutiny of a beefed-up charter office under director DawnLynne Kacer.

“It’s not a terribly productive relationship,” said DeMaura.

Philadelphia’s charter sector has long lobbied for authorization by other entities besides the School District, a common practice in other states. Now, as the District’s governance changes and the state relinquishes its control, the political battle is escalating.

When the state took over the District in 2001, part of the rationale was to open the door for a “portfolio” model that was friendly to charters and other forms of private management of public schools.

Charter authorization policy is determined by the state government, and Republican legislative leaders have been sympathetic to the charter community’s position. Arguing that the District competes with charter schools for students, Philadelphia’s charter operators have lobbied for bills that add other authorizers.

However, in recent sessions, legislators have been unable to hash out any major amendments to the 20-year-old charter law amid clashes about funding, authorization, and regulation. Philadelphia has half the charter schools in the state.

DeMaura’s organization, Excellent Schools Pennsylvania, is the new iteration of what had been the Philadelphia Schools Advocacy Partnership (PSAP), which was affiliated with the Philadelphia School Partnership. PSP favors charter expansion and gives grants to charter, District and Catholic schools in the city.

Excellent Schools Pennsylvania is not affiliated with PSP, DeMaura said. Mark Gleason, executive director of PSP, is an ex-officio member of the board.

Notebook reporter Greg Windle contributed to this story.

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