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Christina Grant, interim director of the Charter Schools Office, summarizes her office’s evaluation of Tacony Academy’s application before the school board’s Student Achievement Committee. To the left is Shawn Bird, Chief Schools Officer (Photo: Greg Windle)

Greg Windle / The Notebook

Two rejected charters submit revised applications to Board of Education amid push for more oversight

In a February report, the Education Law Center found civil rights violations in several charters.

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

The Philadelphia Board of Education has received revised applications from two of the three charter schools whose applications it voted down earlier this year.

Board members encouraged one, Joan Myers Brown Academy, to revise its application and reapply. That school would focus on dance. The other to try again is Tacony Academy at St. Vincent’s. Both of these charters would be operated by charter organizations that already run schools in the city.

The board will vote on String Theory’s Brown Academy at its June meeting. It will consider American Paradigm’s Tacony Academy at its meeting in May.

And at its April 25 meeting, the board will vote to finalize the charter of Hebrew Public, which was revised and resubmitted last year, as well as vote on amendments submitted by other charter schools. One of those amendments would allow Laboratory Charter, which now has three campuses in Overbrook and Northern Liberties, to relocate at one site in East Falls. That application is expected to run into opposition from local residents.

The flurry of activity is typical for Philadelphia, where one-third of students attend more than 80 charter schools. It shows that although the new board rejected the first three charter applications that it received, further charter expansion in the city is not off the table.

But the state’s charter law has created what some legislators refer to as the “Wild West” of charter school regulation.

Other school boards around the state have viewed Philadelphia as being on the cutting edge of thorough oversight of charter schools. In recent years, the District has expanded its oversight, developing an annual evaluation and new frameworks for renewing charters.

Half the charters in Pennsylvania are in Philadelphia. Whether charter school oversight goes far enough in the city depends on who you ask.

The Education Law Center of Philadelphia (ELC) conducted a review of the city’s authorizing practices for the new school board and found that charter schools serve disproportionately more advantaged students and that civil rights violations are common in charters. Its report, which came out in February, made recommendations to strengthen oversight, though this would probably require an increase in the staff and resources of the Charter Schools Office.

On the other hand, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers wrote a report on Philadelphia’s charter authorizing practices back in 2017, which found the Charter Schools Office to be sufficiently staffed, although it did have a few procedural criticisms.

School board President Joyce Wilkerson called the ELC’s report “very helpful.” She said that the board would be “taking a hard look” and that “it will have an impact on how we’ll proceed, but we haven’t identified how yet.”

The report found that students from low-income households make up 70 percent of the city’s traditional public school students but only 56 percent of charter students. The percentage of English Learners in public schools is almost three times higher than in traditional charters.

Although charter schools enroll a higher percentage of students with disabilities, the charter sector enrolls below-average numbers of students with relatively expensive disabilities and above-average numbers of those with disabilities that are less expensive to serve – a practice that brings in extra tax dollars for many charter schools.

The report also found signs of racial segregation even worse than in public schools. The “vast majority” of charter schools serve student populations where students of one race make up at least two-thirds of the school.

“The report raises concerns that I’ve had for a while now, both in the racial isolation aspect and also special education — there’s a host of issues,” Wilkerson said.

She added that the racial makeup of charters was part of the School Reform Commission’s decision to only renew Franklin Towne Charter — where three-quarters of the student body is white — with conditions, which would require the school to recruit from zip codes with significant minority populations. Franklin Towne refused and is now challenging the School District’s right to impose conditions on charters by appealing to the state Charter Appeal Board.

Growth of the charter office

In the early 2000s, during the initial years of the School Reform Commission, Philadelphia had just three full-time staffers in charge of charter school oversight. The task of overseeing charters includes reviewing applications to open new schools, evaluating existing schools every five years when the charter is up for renewal, closing charters that have not been renewed, reviewing proposed amendments to charters mid-term, and monitoring charters’ compliance with state and federal education laws. The office presents its work in reports for the school board.

As charters expanded more rapidly in Philadelphia than anywhere else in the state, oversight became both more difficult and more needed. Since just 2010, the District went from spending $430 million on charters to just shy of $1 billion — a third of the entire operating budget.

The city’s charters now serve over 73,000 students. However, 6,000 attend cyber charters, overseen directly by the state, and 1,200 others attend charters in other school districts. So the office is responsible for monitoring about 66,000 students.

Amid that expansion, the District hired more staff for the office and picked DawnLynne Kacer to lead the development of new procedures in 2013. At the time, the District only reviewed the records and practices of individual charter schools once every five years, when the charter was up for renewal. Kacer created the annual Charter School Evaluation, first implemented in 2015.

These evaluations are not as thorough as renewal evaluations, but they do review each charter school’s paperwork to check for compliance with state and federal education laws and establish whether the school is following best practices. Each evaluation is published on the District’s website.

Renewals, on the other hand, involve tours of classrooms, interviews with staff, and “mystery calls,” in which District staff pretend to be parents inquiring about the school and record any illegal enrollment practices.

Kacer’s practices drew the ire of the charter community in Philadelphia, which lobbied against any new oversight or regulation, often calling out Kacer by name. Toward the end of Kacer’s time heading the office in 2018, it implemented a policy that would restrict the reasons for which charters could amend their agreements in the middle of their five-year terms. The charter community erupted, both suing and appealing to the state appeal board, and called for closed-door negotiations over the policy, though they were rebuffed.

New leader for charter office

Kacer moved to another job in the District last summer, and Christina Grant is now the interim director of the Charter Schools Office. Grant has continued what Kacer started and made the latest changes to the new Charter School Performance Framework used for renewal decisions. The framework is a common point of contention between charters and the District, with charters often demanding more specificity.

Grant called the framework “a dynamic document that continues to grow and evolve.”

The framework is essentially a rubric that outlines the areas in which charter schools will be evaluated to determine whether they get another five-year term, which most do. Those three areas are academic success, organizational compliance and viability, and financial health and sustainability. Each domain contains numerous standards that, if met, award the school points. And each category has a minimum number of points needed to earn each of the three ratings: Meets Standard, Approaches Standard, or Does Not Meet Standard.

A school that receives Meets Standard or Approaches Standard ratings in all three domains will be awarded another charter, though it may come with conditions, which are used to correct practices where the school only approached standards. Schools that receive a rating of Does Not Meet Standard are evaluated on a case-by-case basis and are occasionally recommended for closure.

“Over the past few years, we’ve added academic growth metrics,” Grant said. As a result, schools are evaluated based on the improvements students have made on standardized tests, not just the overall score. “And we look at how we’re comparing schools to one another, if it makes sense with respect to student subgroups.”

For example, the charter office recently removed the District’s special admission schools from groups that some charters are compared with, even if the charter and the special admission school are demographically similar.

ELC’s recommendations

Many civil rights issues that raised concerns with the Education Law Center have long been published in the pages of the annual Charter Evaluations.

“It’s a robust document that’s helpful for our schools, because on your journey to renewal, you can see, year over year, areas of improvement and be both proactive and reactive in addressing them,” Grant said. “We look at everything from special education students, to English Learners, to school discipline practices.”

Although the ELC applauded the creation of the annual evaluations, it would like to see them go further. Reynelle Brown Staley, staff attorney with the ELC and lead author of the report, said she would like to see the annual evaluation become more qualitative, like the renewal evaluations.

“For the renewal evaluation, there’s some site visits, mystery calls, and also conversations with staff to assess compliance with different laws,” said Brown Staley. “But the annual evaluation process is basically checking paperwork that the charters are volunteering. … Relying on self-disclosed reports from the charter school means there are certain compliance issues where there’s no sure-fire way to ensure they come to light.”

Grant explained that during renewal, her staff members make announced visits to the school, along with members of the school board.

“We take a look at the annual evaluation data and start with interviewing the [charter] school’s board,” Grant said. They also look at special education data, along with the code of conduct and other documents in the school. “We want to connect the dots between what we see on a month-to-month basis, in terms of how you say you’re governing the school, and if that bears out in practice.”

District staff and board members spend a few days speaking with students, teachers, support staff, and administrators. They also contact parents.

Brown Staley was impressed by the site visits, but she wants them to occur annually instead of every five years and to focus even more intensely on the rights of vulnerable student demographics.

“But that would require a lot more resources and staff time,” she said.

Staffing levels

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) recommends that state laws build a fee into payments sent to charters that would directly fund the local charter office and criticized Pennsylvania’s charter law for not including it. The group found a national average fee of 3 percent, larger than the District’s spending level of just above 2 percent, or $1.7 million.

That money pays for 16 full-time employees and other outside consultants who evaluate curriculum for new applications, amendments, and renewals, along with legal counsel to run hearings.

NACSA surveyed authorizers and found they feel well-staffed at an average of five schools per staff member. With its staff of 16 and 87 brick-and-mortar charters, Philadelphia is close to that average, with nearly five and a half schools per person.

Kristen Forbriger, vice president of external relations for NACSA, said it’s difficult to judge Philadelphia specifically, because “authorizing is so based on context, and what it takes to be a quality authorizer can look very different in different contexts.”

“It’s really important for authorizers to be adequately resourced and staffed to ensure quality,” Forbriger said. “But it’s also a balance, in that there can be such a thing as too much regulation.”

Grant said the board and the School Reform Commission before it have focused on hiring staff who are former educators to create evaluation systems that are more “robust.”

“The board has continued to make investments in higher-quality authorizing,” Grant said. “We’ve built out our charter authorizing team to make sure renewals and evaluations are done in a timely and efficient manner.”

Another comparison for the current staffing level is a Pew report from 2015 that studied how Philadelphia and Pennsylvania’s charter authorizing practices compared to other states and cities. It cited Los Angeles as an example of best practices, where the staffing ratio at the time was roughly 50 percent higher than Philadelphia’s is today.

The ELC’s Brown Staley wants the District to further build the capacity of the office and increase its annual monitoring of civil rights violations. But she said that hiring would have to be deliberate.

“There is probably a link between high levels of staffing, formalized procedures, and effective oversight,” Brown Staley said. “They shouldn’t add capacity for capacity’s sake, but have clear intentions for what additional work the office would be doing.”

Grant and Wilkerson said there were no plans to expand the office at the moment. But Grant said there is an “ongoing conversation” and further investment will only be made “as needed.”

Site visits

Charters often clash with the District over how much “access” District staff should have to a charter school under the state law, according to Brown Staley. Under the law, she said, the District staffers tend to have the most success “assessing compliance with legal requirements around student services and finances.” They have less success when trying to evaluate a school’s day-to-day operating procedures, which require frequently touring schools, preferably unannounced.

“The line between what is an operational practice and a practice involving legal compliance can be difficult to parse,” Brown Staley said. “Our view is that in order to understand a school’s compliance with the law, you need to understand their operations.”

Forbriger encouraged site visits only around renewal “as necessary to collect data that cannot be obtained otherwise.”

“Typically we believe that unless a school is demonstrating evidence of underperformance or noncompliance, authorizers should give them the time and space to focus on teaching and learning.”

School board member and former SRC Commissioner Chris McGinley heads the board’s Student Achievement Committee, which writes charter school policy. He hadn’t fully read the ELC report, but as a former special education teacher, McGinley said it was “critical” for the board to get involved when charters break federal laws guarding the rights of special education students or English Learners.

McGinley said his underlying concern was about a longstanding finding of the ELC: that charters are not legally obligated to spend all extra special education dollars they receive on their special education students and that they often don’t.

“They’re funded by a formula. But there’s no mechanism to ensure that all the dollars received in the name of a child with a disability are spent on that child,” he said. “It’s not something that the Charter Schools Office can keep track of.

“Monitoring that would require a fundamental change in the law.”