On the same day that the Philadelphia School Reform Commission was told it could not scrap the teachers' contract to save money, the state House speaker urged the commission to approve more charter schools.
Twenty-seven of the 40 applicants for new charters "are doing a bang-up job," Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) said at a roundtable meeting Thursday with parents at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker campus in West Philadelphia.
In a private meeting with School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. and SRC Chairman Bill Green, Turzai said he made it clear: The district ought to approve many of those new charter proposals.
Of the applicants, Turzai said, the 27 applicants beat district averages, and 16 met the state's academic benchmarks.
"There's an expectation that the good applicants for charter schools are going to be approved," he said.
Asked by a reporter how the cash-strapped district could afford more charters, the speaker pointed to the recently enacted cigarette tax.
"We just made sure that the cigarette tax got passed," he said, referring to legislation that allowed a $2-per-pack tax in the city to fund schools. "We got the votes that got them over the goal line."
District officials, however, said the $49 million that the district expects to collect from that tax this year was needed to open schools on time last fall.
Hite has often said that the district will not spend money it does not have. And Green, in an interview, said the district was in a tough spot.
"We are very appreciative of the efforts of the speaker to get the cigarette tax passed," Green said. "Unfortunately, our fixed costs are rising quicker than our revenue. As a result of that and the Commonwealth Court decision [Thursday], we have an $80 million deficit next year before we approve any charter schools."
If the SRC were to approve all 40 applications, those schools could add 40,341 charter seats in a district that already has 67,000 - or more than one-third - of its students enrolled in charters.
A recent analysis by the nonprofit Public Citizens for Children and Youth concluded that approval of all the applicants would cause the district's charter payments to grow to more than $1 billion and consume 42 percent of the district's annual budget.
At Thursday's roundtable, hosted by Turzai, parent after parent echoed the same theme: The city needs more charters.
"Mastery and a lot of other charter schools have the recipe to get things done," said Nate Williams, a parent at Mastery Charter's Mann campus in West Philadelphia. "We're here to turn waiting lists into seats."
Charter advocates had assembled the audience.
One parent said he has one child in a charter and two in district schools.
"I see better quality education in charters," said the parent, whose child goes to Global Leadership Academy in West Philadelphia.
Then he turned to Turzai and said: "Maybe you can push them in the right direction to approve some of the higher-functioning schools."
In October, the district announced that it would accept new charter applications for the first time since 2007, to comply with the requirements of the cigarette tax law.
The SRC held hearings on the applications and is scheduled to vote on them next month.