SRC feels heat for adding five charters

Protesters disrupt opening proceedings at the School Reform Commission hearing Wednesday, Feb. 18, on charter school applications.

The School Reform Commission continued to take heat Thursday for its decision to approve five new charter schools, with critics from both sides railing against the action.

Mark Gleason, executive director of Philadelphia School Partnership, said he was "deeply disappointed" that the SRC approved only five schools, with 2,684 places for students, Wednesday, rejecting proposals by qualified schools.

PSP, a well-funded, controversial nonprofit dedicated to expanding strong schools, had offered $25 million to help defray new-charter costs, but for now, that money is off the table, Gleason said.

Advocates of wide charter expansion cited pent-up demand for strong charters, with thousands on waiting lists for the schools, which are paid for with public dollars and run by independent boards but authorized by the Philadelphia School District.

Others, including Gov. Wolf and the teachers' union, say that any new charter seat strips children of needed resources in the financially desperate district.

The district says the new charter spots will cost $13 million more than it had planned on spending on charter schools over five years. PSP said it understood the move to be cost-neutral, given the charter-school closures the SRC has separately begun.

"It's not clear what we would be making a grant for," Gleason said. "If they were to decide at some point in the future that they want to expand the number of quality schools - district and charter both - then we're very interested in working with them."

The SRC effectively stranded tens of thousands of children "in schools that aren't giving them a fair shot at a quality education," Gleason said.

After the SRC met Thursday night, commission chairman Bill Green took exception to Gleason's statement, which he said seemed to suggest that the only way to help students who now attend struggling public schools is to send them to charter schools.

"Traditional public schools can and will perform better once they have the appropriate resources," Green said. "We'd like everybody's help with both."

Earlier in the day, House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) said he was "very disappointed" by the decision.

"By and large, [the SRC] bowed to the political pressure of the unions and the governor," Turzai said.

Turzai's comments carry weight because he will help get a state budget passed, and the school system has already asked for $200 million in new money from lawmakers for its next spending plan.

Turzai suggested he was not inclined to go to bat for large sums for the district.

'The key'

"We are more than meeting our obligations financially," Turzai said. "The key is: Are they going to give parents and grandparents the opportunity to have the charter schools that they want? I do think that their decision certainly makes it clear that reform is not the top priority."

The five charters approved at a lengthy, raucous special meeting Wednesday night were TECH Freire Charter School, Independence West Charter, KIPP DuBois Charter, MaST Community Charter-Roosevelt, and Mastery Charter-Gillespie. Four will open in 2016; KIPP was approved to open this fall.

Four people were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct at Wednesday's meeting. They were part of a group opposed to the granting of any new charters.

Every cent in the district's budget matters, said Matthew Stanski, the district's chief financial officer, but relatively speaking, the charter schools' financial impact is low.

"I do not believe this will negatively impact district-run schools," Stanski said.

The 34 denied applicants have the right to appeal the SRC's decision to Harrisburg, and Turzai said Thursday that he urges them to do so.

Gleason, of PSP, said he believed that many would appeal.

'Proven strategies'

He also said the vote would hurt the district's chances in Harrisburg for new funding.

"I've always felt that we need more funding from the state, but to get taxpayers that aren't from Philadelphia to want to invest in our schools, we have to be showing that we're spending on proven strategies and improving schools," Gleason said.

Wolf said after the vote that he believed the district could not afford any new charter schools, but that he would work to restore funding cuts to the school system.

Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, said she was heartened by the SRC's authorization process, but still thought it could not afford new charter schools.

"We're still not in a financial condition to absorb even $13 million in cuts," Cooper said. "It's a very shortsighted decision."

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said she believed that the SRC's approval of more charters would "suck more resources out of neighborhood public schools, destabilize communities, and hurt Philadelphia's kids."

Mayor Nutter said in a statement that the SRC had been backed into a corner on charters and, given the difficult circumstances, "acted in a prudent matter."

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