This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The School District of Philadelphia has a new tool for evaluating its charter schools, one that it hopes will help end a long and public tug of war with the city’s growing charter sector.
If charters accept the terms in this revamped rubric — known as the “charter school performance framework” — the District will have a clear and mutually agreeable road map for deciding whether a school should close when its term expires or remain open for another five years.
If charters blanch at the deal, the incoming school board will inherit a dispute fraught with political implications and real-world consequences for tens of thousands of children.
Seventeen charter schools that were offered renewals in the past have refused to sign new agreements based on disputes with the District’s expectations. These breakaway charters have now gone more than a year without valid contracts and say they won’t sign agreements they see as overbearing and unrealistic. The prolonged disagreement has exposed tensions between the District’s charter office and the growing sector it oversees.
Another 17 charters are recommended for renewal again this year, meaning there are now 34 total schools potentially in limbo — roughly 40 percent of the city’s 84 charter schools.
The new tool is an attempt to break this stalemate, and it was developed with substantial input from the charter operators themselves. District leaders say it is far more transparent and consistent about what schools must do to meet District standards in academics, operations, and financial stability. They also hope it will create an ever-increasing academic bar for charters, one that ensures these publicly financed, privately run schools are superior to their District counterparts and worth the financial burden they place on the system as a whole.
In that spirit, the standard charter agreement has undergone “more than 60 negotiated changes” over the past year, according to Estelle Richman, chair of the soon-to-be dissolved School Reform Commission.
“These charter agreements incorporate a revised performance framework which provides charter schools with transparent and predictable accountability and ensures charter schools are quality options for students and families,” she said in a statement.
For instance, the performance framework no longer includes special admissions magnet schools in peer groups when determining whether a charter has out-performed schools with similar demographics. The District also says it will circulate a calculator that charters can use to determine how they’re faring on the rubric well before their five-year contracts come up for renewal, adding clarity to the process.
The question now is how many charters will agree to the new terms.