This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
In a series of historic votes, Philadelphia’s Board of Education denied all three new charter school applications at its meeting Thursday, amid calls for a full moratorium on charters. The votes reversed the dominant reasoning of the former School Reform Commission, which the board seemed to uphold in December when it renewed the charter of Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School in an attempt to avoid legal fees from a potentially lengthy appeals process.
This time, board members denied the three applications to expand the operators’ charter school networks, citing struggling academics at the applicants’ other schools and difficulties in serving diverse and vulnerable students. Members also mentioned that applicants have other charter schools that are operating under expired charters, without signing the conditions offered by the board, which would require the schools to meet various standards.
Before the votes, charter advocates and a group of students expressed support for the new schools.
City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown spoke in favor of String Theory’s proposed new charter school, the Joan Myers Brown Academy, named after the founder of the Philadelphia Dance Company. It was envisioned as a performance arts charter school in West Philadelphia with a focus on dance.
The vote took place after outraged testimony from Joseph Corosanite, the co-founder of String Theory Schools.
“It’s challenging for me to see an evaluation of us that is deeply flawed and biased,” Corosanite said, referring to the evaluation of String Theory’s application by the District’s Charter Schools Office. “I understand that there still may be some question, but there is not part of our application that can’t be worked through if you choose to approve us.”
Corosanite said the school should be approved because the neighborhood schools in West Philadelphia are “some of the worst in the city from an academic standpoint, as well as from a facilities standpoint.”
“People don’t know how we do this because they’ve never done it before.”
Board members explained their thoughts after the votes were taken.
“I did not come to the board with the perspective that all schools were bad. I certainly did not come with the perspective that charters are better,” said member Leticia Egea Hinton. “I’m sometimes confused by the perspective that charters, no matter how low-performing, are better and that public schools, no matter how great, are still bad.
“Our challenge is: How do we create a system that provides a quality education for all, that reflects high standards and expectations for all children, no matter where they live and who they are?”
Chris McGinley, who was also a member of the former School Reform Commission, thought back to the 1990s, when charters first appeared in Philadelphia.
“During the charter school movement in Philadelphia, it was an era where schools were supposed to become more like businesses … a quick fix, mostly for urban school districts,” he said. “We all know that promise has not been realized.”
McGinley said he would vote to approve only the highest-quality charter schools, “with consistency towards a Pennsylvania charter school law that is big on promise and low on accountability.”
He added: “Even if we accept the premise that school districts should operate more like businesses, there were valid reasons not to approve. We have unsigned contracts with three of the applicants. No business would accept new bids or new work with providers who refuse to sign current contracts.”
City Councilwoman Helen Gym, who helped found a charter school when she was a community organizer but became a critic of the state’s charter law, celebrated the votes as a victory for local control — referring to the nearly 20-year struggle of organizers and advocates to abolish the state-controlled SRC, which Mayor Kenney replaced with an appointed school board last summer.
“For years, a state takeover body sold the idea that our public schools’ most basic needs and rights had to be sacrificed in favor of reckless and massive charter expansion — no matter the quality of the charter or the impact on the school district,” Gym said in a statement after the vote. “The needs of our public schools are dire. We need immediate investments to address staffing and curricular vacancies that are robbing our children of their right to a ‘thorough and efficient’ education.” She was referring to a phrase in Pennsylvania’s constitution.
“We need meaningful investments in our school facilities so that they don’t fall apart or continue to put the health of children and school staff at risk,” Gym’s statement continued.
City Council and the school board have more work to do and “a long way to go before we can claim any measure of adequacy.”
Calls for reform and moratorium
Temple Law professor Susan DeJarnatt said she conservatively estimated that approving the new charter schools would create $43 million in stranded costs for the District – the net loss to the District even after accounting for any savings incurred by students leaving their home schools.
“That does not include the additional costs of oversight or the effects on special education funding,” DeJarnatt testified before the votes.
“New charter schools are supposed to provide innovation and be models for other schools. None of these proposed schools meet those criteria, as explained in the CSO evaluations,” she said. “In addition, all three applicants currently run existing charter schools that are not doing well and some whose charters have expired.”
The Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS), a group that served as a watchdog over the former SRC and now does the same for the Board of Education, researched and analyzed the new applications. Members called on the new school board to deny all the new applications, citing a cost of more than $119 million to the School District over the five-year term of the charters if all three schools were approved. The proposed schools planned to issue bonds to buy property and renovate buildings, though some of the applicants’ existing schools are still paying off debt from previous bond issues.
“How many District students are you going to continue to deprive of resources, including classes in the arts, to allow three more charter management companies to increase and profit from their real estate holdings?” asked APPS member Deborah Grill in her testimony. “String Theory spends one-third of its operating budget on debt and building costs for its existing school and has had to cut course offerings and student transportation due to that debt.”
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan announced a call for a full moratorium on new charters after a survey of members of the union.
“Our school system simply cannot afford to funnel more money into a charter school system that furthers the inequities our children in public schools experience each day,” Jordan said in a statement. “After a member-wide survey, the PFT released its public education platform based on insights from the people working in underfunded classrooms every day. It is a proactive investment agenda that outlines the urgent need for resources for our schoolchildren.
“Every child in every zip code deserves, and is constitutionally entitled to, a thorough and efficient public education. Every child has the fundamental right to learn in a school that is warm in the winter and cool in the spring; and to learn in a school that is free from mold, asbestos, lead, and other environmental hazards.”
The Education Law Center of Philadelphia (ELC) released its latest report Thursday, requested by the school board, that examined the education of vulnerable student populations at Philadelphia’s brick-and-mortar charter schools. It found that, compared to the city’s public schools, these charter schools under-enroll low-income students, English learners, and students with disabilities that are relatively expensive to help with.
ELC found that many of these under-enrollment trends are the direct result of practices by certain charter schools, even when the practices violate students’ civil rights.
“Charter schools are not serving a comparable population to District schools, which raises doubts about any claims that traditional charter schools outperform District schools,” said ELC policy director Reynelle Brown Staley, who worked on the report. “The concentration of more advantaged students in traditional charter schools and more disadvantaged students in District schools is unfair to all students and is a trend that cannot be allowed to continue. And the level of segregation in these charters should also be of concern to the school board.”
Brown Staley also testified before the school board, criticizing the School District’s previous authorizing practices, which the board ultimately abandoned in its votes Thursday. She urged members to adopt the recommendations of the ELC’s report on the local charter sector.
“We found systemic evidence of civil rights issues that we regularly hear about on our helpline,” she said. “A charter can violate federal and state requirements for English learners, special education students, and still be eligible for renewal under the District’s current framework.
“The charter school law gives local school boards broad authority to ensure that the requirements for civil rights and students’ health and safety are being met.”
Frederick Douglass Charter School
The Frederick Douglass Charter High School proposed to open in Fairmount in fall 2019 with 250 students and expand to 500 students over the next four school years. It would have cost the District at least $29 million in tuition dollars over those first five school years.
The school’s founding coalition submitted a controversial application that did not disclose the applicant’s ties to People for People Inc., which already runs another charter school in Fairmount. That organization is run by Herbert Lusk, the minister of Greater Exodus Baptist Church, who also founded People for People’s original charter school. Lusk stepped down as CEO of the original school at the request of the School District. This came after the City Controller’s Office audited the school, concerned that Lusk was using his control of the school and its tax dollars to benefit his various other organizations.
Even though the proposed school’s founding coalition was staffed by employees of People for People and members of the Greater Exodus Baptist Church, the group denied it would have any affiliation with Lusk or People for People. The founding coalition was consistently represented by Pri Seebadri, CEO of the existing charter school, who repeatedly denied that Lusk had any formal involvement beyond promising the new school a grant of $100,000. He also said he was not a member of the founding coalition, though he spoke on that coalition’s behalf.
After a charter school evaluation and an investigation by the Notebook revealed extensive ties between the new school and other organizations that Lusk runs, Seebadri appeared before the school board’s Student Achievement Committee to publicly refute that the new school would benefit Lusk.
“I bring you greetings from Rev. Lusk, who is unable to be here today to speak. It was not my plan to speak,” Seebadri said. He came to speak in Lusk’s place. “Rev. Lusk feels much maligned by the Charter Schools Office’s evaluation.
“He just wants folks to know, and the board to know, that what he is committed to are the youth. The African American young men and women. And he’s committed to saving lives. I’m not here to advocate for the Frederick Douglass Charter School, but rather to point you to our rebuttal documents … our response to every accusation and innuendo.
“Decide if the application is worthy on its merits.”
The vote against the school was unanimous, but three members abstained. Member Lee Huang said his economic consulting firm, Econsult Solutions, has People for People as a client. Wayne Walker is on the board of People for People. Joyce Wilkerson is on the board of Project Home, which fights homelessness. The group is involved in a real estate transaction with People for People.
McGinley, who voted to deny the application, cited “very low achievement” of the existing charter school.
“The need for this school and the interest in this school is not established by the applicant, and the location is in an area with multiple options for schools, both District and charter,” he said.
Tacony Academy at St. Vincent’s
Tacony Academy at St. Vincent’s proposed to open along the Delaware River in the Northeast. St. Vincent’s charter school would start with 400 seats in grades K-3 in the fall of 2019 and expand to 900 seats in grades K-8 in year six, by adding one grade with 100 students each year. If approved, it would have cost the District more than $39 million over the five-year charter term.
In its evaluation of the application, the Charter Schools Office raised concerns about bold academic goals that American Paradigm, its management company, has not been able to achieve at any of its four existing charter schools. Tacony Academy, which the new school seeks to replicate, has come the closest, while others are far from those goals. The application was also cited for not having a thorough plan and adequate support services for educating many vulnerable student populations – citing problems that exist at many other American Paradigm schools.
The evaluation also objected to the bylaws written for the new school’s board, which would allow American Paradigm to “control” the school, which is supposed to have an “independent” board under the charter school law. The management organization should be treated like any other contractor that the board chooses to hire. The boards of each American Paradigm charter school rarely issue Requests for Proposals for contracts, and the schools tend to use the same contractors.
“The board policy for the Tacony application essentially transfers control of the school from the board to American Paradigm — exactly the inverse of what the charter school law requires,” DeJarnatt testified.
The new school’s bylaws stated that its board could only nominate new board members if the board of American Paradigm votes to approve them first. American Paradigm’s board would have also been required to approve the removal of any board member, approve the filling of vacancies, and approve any change to the bylaws. The proposed board members were recruited by the founding coalition, fully staffed by American Paradigm. Most live at least an hour away from Philadelphia, and one as far away as Maryland.
Martha Ritter, a proposed board member for the school and chair of the education department at Cabrini University, spoke in favor of the application.
“I’ve been an elementary school teacher for 12 years and in higher education for more than 18 years,” Ritter said. “As a board member of the proposed charter school, my goals remain constant: to serve children, young people, their families, and their communities.
“I’ll make decisions as a board member based on supporting quality education where students can develop critical and creative thinking. … I support the charter application because of what I’ve seen at the American Paradigm schools.”
The vote was unanimous to deny the application. Joyce Wilkerson explained her reasons extensively.
“I have concerns about the budget and its adequacy in light of some of the real estate issues,” Wilkerson said, referring to the need to rehab the now-abandoned building that is still owned by the Philadelphia Archdiocese. She said the “most important issue” was the poor academic performance at other American Paradigm schools. The company’s school with the highest test scores in middle school, Tacony Academy, also has low Keystone scores at its high school.
“They have four schools in Philadelphia, which is where the operator should be directing its energy and attention,” she said, adding that American Paradigm has not signed the new charter agreements at three of those schools, which come with academic goals and other conditions. Those other struggling schools have “the same leadership that is proposing this new charter school. How are we to have faith that the leadership has the capacity to take on a brand-new school at this moment?”
String Theory – Joan Myers Brown Academy
Joan Myers Brown Academy would run a dance program for students based on curriculum designed by its namesake. The charter office noted that the application was filled with references to this curriculum, but no dance curriculum was submitted with the application.
The school would open near Brown’s home in West Philadelphia in the fall with 600 seats in grades K-5 and expand to 900 seats in grades K-8 by year four, adding one grade with 100 students each year. If approved, it would cost the District more than $49 million during the five-year charter term.
“The String Theory application proposes an arts school without providing a curriculum for the arts and technology programs that are supposed to be its focus,” DeJarnatt said in her testimony.
Nicolas Butler, a senior at the Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter School run by String Theory, urged board members to approve the school.
“Although I had no previous training in the arts and I was once too afraid to be the guy that everybody was looking at, now I can’t imagine myself being off that stage,” Butler said. “Please approve this application for the Joan Myers Brown Academy so many other kids can have the same opportunity that I have.”
“May I introduce you to my family,” he said, reaching back and pointing to a group of students from his school, who held signs and proceeded to sing the theme song to The Addams Family.
The vote to turn down the application was unanimous. Board members both complimented and criticized the application.
“I think the application expresses a great vision,” McGinley said. “But the vision is not sufficiently supported by the application.
“I’m concerned because the citywide-admit school operated by String Theory does not reflect the diversity of demographics in the School District.”
Member Mallory Fix Lopez agreed, and so did Wilkerson.
“In too many areas, the school’s vision is not reflected in the academic materials,” Wilkerson said. “As a proposed school in a specific neighborhood [West Philadelphia], I would expect to see lots of support from members of that community.
“Instead, we received letters from community members urging us to deny the proposed school.”