Philadelphia Strong-Arms Charters With Newly-Claimed Powers

The clock is ticking for unregistered charter schools in Philadelphia as the city’s financial crisis worsens. This is not a new issue, as the city’s School Reform Commission (SRC) efforts to manage school charters have been frustrating and unfruitful. Now that the SRC has newly-reclaimed powers, they’re initiating revocation proceedings against schools that have refused to sign their charters because they include enrollment caps.

Backed by new powers unleashed by the School Reform Commission’s recent decision to suspend part of the state school code, the district has also fired warnings to charters not to seek payment for extra students from the state of Pennsylvania.

“The SRC . . . has the responsibility to act in a fiscally responsible manner in reviewing and approving charter school enrollment growth,” Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn wrote in Oct. 16 letters to charter officials. “Such growth can be responsibly managed only in accordance with a planning process that gives the SRC and the School District the ability to avoid financial disaster, which is a certainty in the absence of managed enrollment growth.”

Paul said that SRC would move against charter schools that were not in compliance by Dec. 15 as Martha Woodall of reports. Paul urged the leaders to meet with the district to discuss the issues and said the letters targeted “a minority” of the district’s 86 charter schools — and that he does not expect the SRC will move to revoke any of those charters.

“We are anticipating we’re going to have signed agreements,” he said.

Of the 28 schools without signed charters, the district was close to reaching understandings with 17 of them, according to Paul. As the saga — which includes court cases — drags on, his letters are the latest twists in the district’s long-running battle to manage charters in the city. However, this new step by the district is unprecedented and has caused turmoil as charter leaders scramble to weigh their legal options according to charter operators.

“I felt completely blindsided,” said Larry Jones, CEO of Richard Allen Prep in Southwest Philadelphia and president of the state Coalition of Public Charter Schools. “We understand that if the district crumbles, public education in the city crumbles.”

Charter leaders and politicians have doubts over the long term impact of this step.

“But how do you work consistently with someone who is going to go nuclear?” Jones, who was one of the city charter leaders who went to Harrisburg last summer to lobby for more state funding for the district, asked. “I think people are trying to make sense of exactly what this means.”

The CEO of West Philadelphia Achievement Charter Elementary School, Stacy Gill-Phillips, has organized a meeting of charter leaders, saying that the district’s actions endangered all city charters – not just those without signed agreements.

“The SRC action will eventually get around to affecting and eliminating all of us!!” she wrote in an e-mail to charter leaders.