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Charter school vote draws criticism

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By Wilford Shamlin III
The Philadelphia Tribune
February 20, 2015

Reactions to the approval this week of five new charter schools, which meant denials for 34 other proposals, drew wide range of public remarks, including a very public chastisement from the Democrat chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. The five charter school applications were approved for opening in September 2015.

State Sen. Vincent Hughes said any approvals would only worsen the district’s financial conditions.

“As a result of these cuts, the funding of our charter schools has come largely from inside the district, with dollars being taken from traditional public schools to fund charter school,” Hughes said. “Essentially, we have a district within a district. And they are separate and very much unequal. In the end, the academic success of all of the children is at risk.”

Of the 34 applications denied after hours of public testimony, only three ended in a 3-2 split vote but an overwhelming majority failed to win three votes from the Philadelphia School Reform Commission at a special meeting Wednesday.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf opposes any new charter school approvals because it would only add to the district’s financial strain, a position supported by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers union and its affiliate, American Federation of Teachers.

Approving even a single application made the vote more controversial because of the potential impact on a school district that has made significant cuts in staff positions, programs and services.

In the face of a barrage of intense public criticism, the state-controlled panel responsible for operating and setting the budget fat or a school district buried in serious debt authorized five existing charter school operators that run KIPP, Freire, MaST, Mastery Charter, Independence Charter schools to open new schools, adding some 2,600 new seats. However, there will be fewer seats with two charter schools closing in 2014.

AFT President Randi Weingarten released a statement that calculated the financial impact of each new charter seat at $7,000, which would equate to $50 million in four years. She pointed out the need for increased accountability issues which has rocked traditional public schools and privately managed charter schools alike.

Hughes questioned the Philadelphia School Partnership’s offer to donate $35 million in support of charter school expansion and improvement initiatives. He said the offer would fall short of the increased cost as a result of opening five schools.

PSP, which solicits private donations with the goal of investing the funding into school improvement initiatives, said the offer was intended to lessen financial strain to the district so charter school approvals would be decided solely on merit. However, Hughes expressed reservations about the offer, saying, “Their well-intentioned offer of $35 million to help expand charter schools may very well be the golden goose that laid the rotten egg.”

Fernando Gallard, the district’s chief of communications, said the offer was a discussion for Superintendent William Hite or his designee rather than a matter for the school reform commission.

In a statement released by PSP, executive director Mark Gleason said, “While the SRC approved five schools with a history of providing increased educational opportunity to disadvantaged students, PSP is deeply disappointed that nearly a dozen other schools with similar records were rejected despite their desire to locate in neighborhoods where families urgently need better schools.”

PFT President Jerry Jordan blasted the school district for using cost-savings as a justification for cancelling the teachers contract, a move that was later nullified by a state court. The statement read: “The same SRC that used the district’s budget crisis to justify cancelling the PFT contract has, in just a few minutes, made a decision that will cost million of dollars, and could negatively impact our city’s children and communities for years to come.”

Jonathan Cetel, executive director for PennCAN, an advocacy group pushing education reform, said in a statement released Thursday, “Unfortunately, yesterday’s vote by the SRC means thousands of families will remain on charter school waiting lists while $140 million is invested in the lowest-performing one percent of schools in the state. At PennCAN, we believe that the School District of Philadelphia needs more money, but additional resources only make a difference if they are invested in schools that work.”

James Paul, senior policy analyst for the Commonwealth Foundation, supported the idea of new charter schools that would replace schools plagued by academic performance and financial management.

“Some will question how Philadelphia can afford these new charter schools. But for the sake of kids trapped in failing and violent district schools by virtue of their ZIP code, a better question is how can get the city afford not to,” he said.

Kara Kerwin, president of The Center for Education Reform, said proposals to create an all-girls college preparatory charter school that provides instruction in science and technology fields where females are under-represented.

“It’s a shame that more Philadelphia parents will be forced to wait for a better opportunity for their child,” she said.