This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The School Reform Commission will hold its last meetings Thursday, one to vote on proposed renewals of charter schools and another to conduct regular business.
At the second meeting, it will vote on a previously announced revision of the student discipline policy that would extend the ban in kindergarten on out-of-school suspensions up through 2nd grade.
Sixteen charters are being offered renewals based on a new framework developed by the District’s charter office. But only a few are expected to sign due to a continuing conflict between a large segment of the charter community and the District, primarily over how the charters are rated on academics.
In addition to these renewals, 17 other charters have gone without signed agreements for a year or more.
Some charter leaders and groups advocating for them have long argued that the District’s charter office holds them to inconsistent and sometimes unreasonable standards. District regulators undertook extensive negotiations with charter operators to address these complaints and came up with a framework to judge charters on academics, operations, and finances that they say is transparent and fair.
But these negotiations did not lead to an agreement, and they drew censure from ardent charter opponents because they weren’t conducted in public.
Both SRC Chair Estelle Richman and Steve DeMaura of Excellent Schools PA, which has led the public charge against the framework’s academic measuring stick, said they expected some charters to sign agreements. They gave very different characterizations over what that means, however.
Richman said, in essence, that she is gratified that some charters are willing to be held to high academic standards.
“We have a diverse group of schools who have joined us in recognizing that these expectations for quality are an important part of the framework,” said Richman in a statement. “It is unfortunate that others are still seeking to lower the bar.”
DeMaura said he “wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of schools signed,” adding that “the coalition largely remains intact. The vast majority are not signing and are continuing to wait for additional conversations.”
DeMaura’s group undertook the task of applying the new framework’s academic benchmarks to District schools and released a report concluding that more than 100 would fall into the “does not meet standard” category themselves.
“If the implications of their framework would mean that 114 District schools don’t meet their score, it’s hard to say with a straight face that they care about quality,” DeMaura said. (Charter office data mavens, for their part, disputed the rigor and accuracy of the analysis.)
“We believe in quality schools regardless of sector,” DeMaura said. “Their posture is to hold one group of schools highly accountable, while leaving others untouched.”
The disagreement over where the standard should be set is complex and statistically arcane, but it boils down to this: Should charter schools be held to higher academic outcomes than District schools because charters were established in the first place to provide better options than the District was providing? And how should the academic outcomes be judged and compared?
The charters say that they should meet the standard if they fall above the median – in the top half – of peer schools when all their individual scores are compared. The District, however, determines each school’s academic quality by comparing each school’s score to the averages for their peer group and for the District.
“The real issue is that they are essentially taking the average of all District students and comparing that to a school rather than comparing two schools to each other,” DeMaura said. “Nobody decides to send their kids to the district average.”
This is all playing out in a stalemate over whether it is fair to require that charters attain 45 percent or 40 percent of the available points – 100 for elementary schools, 80 for high schools – to earn a “meets standard” rating for academics. The point total is based on three factors: reading and math proficiency rates, growth in these rates over time, and student attendance. The District is holding out for 45 percent, and the charters for 40 percent.
But underlying the statistical debate are larger forces. The SRC will be out of existence in less than two weeks, and a new Board of Education will take over. There is some inclination among charters to wait and hope for better treatment under the new governance structure – although what will happen is hard to predict. The nine new board members have been largely silent on substantive education issues since they were named by Mayor Kenney in February.
Still, “It’s in our interest to come to a good conclusion on these conversations, and I think there’s no need to meet artificial timelines,” DeMaura said.
The second issue is an appeal by Franklin Towne Charter School over the SRC’s recent decision to award it a new charter “with conditions.” Franklin Towne is arguing in court that the approval is actually a denial because the conditions are so transformative that they create a new school. One condition imposed on Franklin Towne, whose existing schools are overwhelmingly white, mandates that the school give preference to students from zip codes that are predominantly black and Latino. Another would reduce the size of the proposed school by one-third.
If Franklin Towne prevails, that means the decision goes to the state Charter Appeals Board, and the SRC – and the incoming board – will lose what leverage it has in attempting to control charter growth and regulate quality.
“It could be devastating,” said one longtime official.
The SRC meeting to consider the charter renewals will be held at 1 p.m., and the regular meeting will be held at 4:30 p.m. at District headquarters, 440 N. Broad St. At its regular meeting, the SRC will vote on several capital projects for school repair and renovation, among other actions.
In August 2016, the SRC banned suspension for kindergartners. The proposed policy would also ban suspension for 1st and 2nd graders. It states:
“Kindergarten, first and second-grade students, in lieu of suspension, must be referred to the counselor for a meeting to discuss appropriate behavioral or behavioral health interventions and supports, unless the students’ actions result in a serious bodily injury. In order to prove serious bodily injury, the school must provide medical documentation to the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities and the Assistant Superintendent for their approval.”