Life at Mastery : In the News : Chartering charters' future in Philadelphia

Chartering charters' future in Philadelphia

Monday, February 2 2015. By Bill Chenevert

The Philadelphia School District, by way of the School Reform Commission, is considering 40 new applications for charter schools.

The educational landscape of Philadelphia is at a crossroads, and the School Reform Commission (SRC) is currently considering 40 applications for new charter schools. With 86 charters in operation, some operators are applying for new buildings, and many are seeking their first charter.

The applications were submitted with a Nov. 15, 2014 deadline, and since then there have been two rounds of application hearings – the decision deadline is Feb. 21. The School District of Philadelphia, with most of its decision-making powers in the hands of the SRC, is likely to accept at least a handful of those applications, and three South Philly addresses may house new charters at this time next year: the former chocolate factory at 2101 Washington Ave., Vare Washington School, 1198 S. Fifth St., and a vacant warehouse at 2501 Oakford St.

“There are serious legal, fiscal, and oversight issues with approving new charter schools in Philadelphia, key among them is that, flat out, the district doesn’t have the money,” Anthony Hopkins, the communications director for Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY), whose organization released a report earlier this month that advocates for the rejection of all 40 charters by the District, said.

“Given their dire financial straits, we’re saying that they can’t approve any new charters. Until we get to a point where all the schools we do have are funded and have all that they need, when we have that, then we can start talking about expanding charters,” Hopkins added.

The report stresses the dangers of the SRC accepting charter applications when already poor and under-resourced public District-run schools are strapped for money. Charters are paid for by the District, and charter payments could rise to up to 40 or 50 percent of the district’s budget. If a significant number of applicants are accepted, Philadelphia’s charter enrollment could rise to over 100,000 students, or nearly 51 percent of the District’s total enrollment. Also in PCCY’s report is a staggering fact: “Nationally, Philadelphia ranks 3rd highest for percentage of students who are enrolled in charter schools, trailing only New Orleans and Detroit.”

The district’s communications office, when asked for comment on either the status or strength of applications and its plan for bankrolling accepted applications, said “we have no comment at this time.”

Funding for charter and public schools is determined per child, so as Hopkins put it, “when a child that’s in public school goes to Mastery in South Philly, the district pays roughly $10,000 to the charter and if that kid has special needs, it’s more. And it should be; you need more resources to educate that child.”

Helen Gym, an advocate for public education and solvent financial reform, is weary of charter expansion as well.

“This is not a stable system. It is not an accountable system, and the amount of moneys that we’re pouring into it and the amount of legislative attention that’s going into something that’s so unstable is extreme,” she said.

Gym pointed to the 4,000 jobs cut between June and September ’13 and the hundreds more before the ’14-’15 school year as symptoms of a neglected public sector. She also expressed outrage over the sudden closings of Walter Palmer and Wakisha charters, both in North Philly, which led to the relocation of 1,075 students.

“I think that there’s definitely a space for quality charter schools in this city, but to overblow their impact and neglect to pay attention to the overall financial and overall collateral costs of the charters is really foolish at this time,” Gym said.

“Your guess is as good as mine. They didn’t give any indication whatsoever how many [applications] they would receive or approve – it could be none, it could be 40,” Jason Corosanite, String Theory Schools’ chief innovation officer, said.

Locally, String Theory operates the Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter School campuses at 2600 S. Broad St., and 2407 S. Broad St., and has submitted four new applications, two in South Philly in Grays Ferry and Pennsport, respectively.

“We are operating under the assumption that existing operators that have high-performing schools probably have a better chance,” Corosanite said. “I think we’re a great example of how to be innovative on the same dollars or less dollars. Philadelphia has 86 charter schools, and there are a handful up there that are the best in the city, like ours.”

Mastery Charter Thomas Campus, 814 Bigler St. in Marconi East, is one of the highest-performing charters in the city. Its operators include the Washington Avenue address as a potential site for expansion.

Much of this struggle comes from the nearly billion-dollar statewide education cut that former Gov. Tom Corbett put in place, namely a line-item reimbursment where the district would get reimbursed for moneys sent to charters.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty. I think the SRC will have to come up with money somewhere, and the District has been in a situation where it’s financially strapped,” Thomas Szczesny, a Passyunk Square resident of the 600 block of Sears Street and a doctoral education student at the University of Penn, said

Szczesny and Gym are both suspicious of the SRC’s capacities to review these applications and monitor charter progress.

“They’ve solicited support from outside institutions to read applications,” Szczesny said.

“It’s a dangerous situation when you’ve got so many schools you can’t keep track of them,” Gym argued.

Nearly every mayoral candidate has either a charter school he or she has started (some even have pending applications) or condones some form of public and charter schools to serve Philadelphia’s youth. State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, rumored to be a front-runner, founded the Hardy Williams Academy in West Philadelphia and became part of the Mastery network in ’11.

Even String Theory’s Corosanite admits that the District’s job is looking messy and difficult.

“It’s an absolute nightmare, and the District is in a very bad position,” he said. “[They] realize that [they] have to turn around some schools and make progress educationally with these children.”

Staff Writer Bill Chenevert at bchenevert@southphillyreview.com or ext. 117.