This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Updated 2:30 p.m with additional comment from former SRC Commissioner Chris McGinley
DawnLynne Kacer is out as head of the District’s Charter Schools Office, which has come under relentless fire from charter operators who contend that it regulates them too harshly and sets unrealistic academic standards.
Kacer’s move comes as part of an administrative reorganization that Superintendent William Hite announced in a letter sent Wednesday morning to principals and other administrative staff.
For more than a year, charters and the District have been at a standoff over the conditions they would accept in signing new agreements. During its last day of meetings, the School Reform Commission approved more than a dozen charter school agreements, including some that had been on the table for a year or more. But 25 charters, some of which were offered outright renewals and others renewals with conditions, are still holding out in protest.
District spokesman Lee Whack issued a statement: “We at the School District of Philadelphia are pleased with the hard work DawnLynne Kacer has done as Executive Director of our Charter Schools Office. We are also excited that she is taking her skill set to another vital role within our District.”
Kacer is not leaving the District. She is becoming executive director of the Opportunity Network, which oversees alternative schools that operate under contract with the District for students who are on a path to dropping out and want to re-engage with the system and get a diploma.
David Hardy, founder of Boys’ Latin Charter School and a senior adviser to Excellent Schools PA, which advocates for charter schools and their expansion, said his organization had made it known “up and down Broad Street, to the mayor and everybody else,” that the charter community was unhappy with Kacer.
“I don’t think there will be very many people upset that she’s gone,” Hardy said in an interview. “She’s very contentious. There’s always a certain amount of contention between the charter office and charter operators. But she’s dialed it up to a much higher level.”
One of the main complaints of Hardy and other charter operators is that Kacer’s office set academic standards for charters that many, if not most, of the District schools cannot meet, and then moved to close or impose what they consider to be onerous conditions on them.
“I understand that charter schools want to reach a higher level as far as performance, but I think they pushed that level beyond what’s reasonable,” Hardy said. “If [the District] were held to that standard, they’d fail miserably. The only ones that would do well are selective admissions schools.”
Stephen DeMaura, executive director of Excellent Schools PA, echoed Hardy’s point.
“We have long said that District schools and charters alike should have been held to the same standards of quality,” he said. Kacer’s removal “could be an opportunity for a reset in the charter school office that will get us to the point where we can fairly measure all public schools.”
District officials said that “no complaint from the charter community had any bearing on this decision.”
The District up to now has taken the position that charters should be held to a higher standard because that is the reason they were established – to offer students better options than are available in some District schools. Under the state’s charter law and overall education funding system, charters end up competing with District schools for the same scarce funding.
The state has not moved to consider the stranded costs of students moving to charters. About a third of Philadelphia students in publicly funded schools now attend charters, and Philadelphia accounts for half the charter schools in the state.
The District has made several moves to control charter growth, which the charter community has challenged in court. Excellent Schools PA has sued the District over Policy 406, which was adopted in March by the SRC and outlines stricter terms under which charter schools can amend their signed charter agreements before they have expired and need to be renewed. The organization claims that the policy restricts their enrollment policies and operations.
Also under challenge is the District’s practice of approving new charters but not in their original form. Franklin Towne charter has filed a legal action contending that the SRC’s recent approval of a new middle school with conditions, including that it enroll far fewer students and accept more students from designated zip codes, amounts to a denial and therefore can be appealed to the state Charter Appeals Board.
Under Kacer’s leadership, an academic framework was developed that established a point system based on levels of academic proficiency, the amount of academic growth, and attendance trends for each school. Charters needed to achieve 45 percent of the possible points to “meet standards” for academics. Charters are also judged on their financial condition and operational practices.
The charters want to lower the necessary points from 45 to 40. They did their own analysis of District schools using pieces of the framework and concluded that most District schools would also fall behind the threshold that was set. District statisticians countered that the analysis was flawed because, among other reasons, it used only one year of data instead of five.
During a press availability after Thursday’s SRC meetings, Kacer stood firm on the academic standards that the office has set for charter schools, defending the framework and its cutoffs for assessing their quality and fitness to stay in operation.
The office set the 45 percent threshold because anything much below that would allow a school to reach the academic benchmarks based on attendance alone, she said. Anyone who studies the renewal reports and sees the actual achievement numbers for any given school regarding test scores, improvement rates, and attendance trends, she said, should then decide “if they feel the bar is set too high for kids.”
As far as over-regulation, another charter complaint, Kacer said: “We believe charters still have a high level of autonomy.”
Education advocates who oppose charter school expansion painted a different picture of Kacer – as someone who shored up the District’s charter office, knows the state charter law, and was willing to enforce it.
“We always found DawnLynne to be professional and extremely knowledgeable of the charter law,” said Lisa Haver of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools. “We’re concerned this could signal another lowering of the standards.”
The shakeup comes in the last week before the SRC goes out of existence on July 1 and a new Board of Education assumes control of the District.
In her new role with the Opportunity Network, Kacer has a special charge to investigate residential treatment facilities where many foster children and students involved in the justice system are placed but meaningful educational standards are lacking. The Notebook wrote about these schools late last year.
“At the District, we routinely make shifts among our talented staff. DawnLynne Kacer has a deep and long-standing interest in the students in our Opportunity Network. We are confident that in this new role she will continue to make a positive impact on Philadelphia students.” Officials said she applied for the position.
Former School Reform Commissioner Chris McGinley confirmed that Kacer had been seeking to move out of the charter office.
“I was aware of Ms. Kacer’s interest in working more directly with District schools while I was on the SRC,” McGinley said.
The charter office will be run on an interim basis by Christina Grant, who now oversees both the Opportunity Network and Innovative Schools Network. The new Board of Education will be seeking a permanent head of the charter office, District officials said.
The text of Hite’s letter to top staff outlining all the changes is below:
As you know, we have recently reorganized our network structure to better align support to our schools, and I recently named Dr. Malika Savoy-Brooks as our new Chief Academic Support Officer. Today, I write to share the final changes to our organizational structure that take effect on July 1, 2018:
Office of Schools
Dr. Cheryl Proctor, who previously served as Executive Director of Federal Programs, is now the Deputy Chief of Schools and will supervise the Leadership Development and Evaluation team that has recently moved from Talent to the Office of Schools. In addition, to support our focus on high schools, Dr. Proctor will supervise the newly created Learning Network 13.
Dr. Karen Kolsky is now the Deputy Chief of School Operations and will work in the Office of Schools to be a direct support for school leaders with operational issues.
Amelia Coleman-Brown and Jessica Ramos who were Assistant Superintendent Fellows, will become Assistant Superintendents of Learning Networks 10 and 11, respectively, and Dr. Rikki Hunt-Taylor will join the District as an Assistant Superintendent of Learning Network 12.
DawnLynne Kacer will be moving from the position of Executive Director, Charter Schools, to Executive Director, Opportunity Network. In addition to overseeing our contract schools, DawnLynne will also be working to develop and implement an infrastructure that will support the educational opportunities of our children who are currently served through residential treatment facilities.
Christina Grant will become Interim Chief of Charter Schools. Christina brings many years of experience from the charter sector. While she is Interim Chief, she will continue to support our Innovation Network.
The Office of School Organization and Management, led by Kristin Combs, will transition from the Office of Academics to the Office of Schools.
Office of Student Support Services
As a result of Dr. Kolsky’s transition to the schools office, all work related to Promise Neighborhoods, Community Schools will transition to Student Support Services, with Karyn Lynch taking the lead for now.
The AIDS Risk Reduction Through Education and Staff Training (ARREST) project and health and wellness programs will transition from the Office of Academic Support.
Within Student Support Services, homeless education services will transition from the Office of Enrollment and Placement to the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities. An Assistant Director position will be advertised to lead this responsibility.
Office of Academic Support
We are currently searching for a Deputy Chief of High Schools to develop and implement a high school strategy in much the same way we focused on early literacy for the last several years. This person will report to the Chief Academic Support Officer and the position is anticipated to be filled by July 31, 2018.