5 of 39 Charter Applications Pass as Anger at SRC Overheats Commission Meeting

Public school advocates at the Wednesday afternoon School Reform Commission meeting. Photo by Joe Piette

Public school advocates at the Wednesday afternoon School Reform Commission meeting. Photo by Joe Piette

By Colleen Kennedy, Political Contributor

As has been reported by now, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission (SRC) voted to approve the proposals of five charter school applicants. There will be a lot of spin – yes, five were approved and thirty-four applications were denied. Judging by the numbers, one might say it was a win for public school parents, and a major loss for students seeking charter school admission. Things could have been much worse for opponents of expansion, especially when you consider the mid-school-year school closures that students recently endured. In a process that began with an $80 million shortfall and ended with an even larger gap, those types of sports-like generalizations that political observers tend to make should be avoided.

The Twitter account for Public Citizens for Children + Youth (PCCY) pointedly remarked that the approval of any applications  was a major loss for all public school students, given the static and inadequate funding long plaguing the School District of Philadelphia. You can check out their recently published report on the fiscal impact and pedagogical impact on students of new charter approvals in SDP, which have been deliberately avoided since 2009 due to a reimbursement cessation under Corbett.

Over 80 speakers gave testimony; some as representatives of charter school applicants, some to voice disdain that the proposals were even being considered, some as “expert witnesses” of various academic backgrounds to testify based on their research help the SRC in their “high-stakes” decision (a descriptor usually reserved for students as they fill in Scantron bubbles).

The Up Against the Law Collective  confirmed that four peaceful protesters against charter school expansion were arrested, taken the 9th District, cited for ‘disrupting a meeting,’ and released within hours

An Unethical Process

All  stakeholders of all perspectives and roles of responsibility who entered the doors to 440 N. Broad Street understood the moral dilemma facing members of the SRC. With an $80 million deficit already facing the cash-strapped school district for the following school year, could they really consider new charter schools? Were the schools that were already open providing a thorough and efficient public education to students, or did the SRC have a moral responsibility to consider other options? Would state legislators like House Speaker Turzai retaliate with new bills hurting the school district fiscally, if SRC members did not heed his demands for new charter approvals?

The elephant in the room was $35 million that was offered to the school district by the Philadelphia School Partnership in consideration for charter applicant review to undertaken on applications’ “own merits,” according to the PSP. This loaded request came on the heels of a rider to Harrisburg’s cigarette tax legislation, which demanded that the School Reform Commission start to consider new charter school applications. Mark Gleason was listed as a registered speaker for the meeting but opted not to make a statement.

Hundreds upon hundreds of students, parents, teachers, applicants, and supporters congregated outside of SDP headquarters in the frigid temperatures, and they waited, and waited, and waited. It took me almost two hours to convince the police standing at the doors to let me in. Many who were never given to opportunity to come inside would have been particularly offended at the number of empty chairs in the meeting room. From muffled conversations between officers, one could glean that there were concerns about disruptions during the meeting if more from the crowd outside were admitted Given the requirements set in place to mandate open government proceedings, that concern legally should have been tabled behind that responsibility.

Concerns were raised by attendees who spoke directly to the state-appointed panel and in side conversations with me about the flagrant disregard for Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act laws, not only in how people were kept from observing, but how the SRC seemed to have a decision prepared before speakers were able to present their written and spoken testimony. As someone who has personally spent a great deal of time observing the minutia of school board proceedings out in my community in Delaware County, I know as an advocate that school boards, whether appointed by the state or elected by the public, tend to operate in a nebulous area in which votes have to be publicly cast, but in which public comment by key stakeholders is clearly not ever considered.

Then there were the direct conflicts of interest themselves. Three different members of the five-member, state-appointed SRC had to recuse themselves for multiple votes on charter applications, because they had a potential or clear conflict of interest. Though they followed the law in declaring they had a conflict of interest and abstained from voting on those particular measures, attendees took to Twitter to question whether a state-appointed body should be made up of individuals with questionable, unfair leanings that could severely impact their ability to be impartial in matters of critical public importance.

It’s worth noting that even with the recusal of individuals on individual SRC motions, of which last night’s meeting had 39, a conflict of interest in any matter of vote taints the overall long-term perspective of serving the needs of the entire school district. One could see it like a piece of bread with patches of mold. Sure, the mold could probably be cut away from the loaf and the remaining bread may not make you physically sick, but the whole time that bread is being eaten, all one can think about is the mold. These publicly declared conflicts of interests in the face of such adversity, I observed, are straining what little public trust is left in the state-appointed body.

Throughout the evening, there were non-violent but still very reactionary interactions from police with attendees. I watched groups of teachers get ejected from the meeting for silently holding signs venting their protest, as students wearing t shirts representing their charter school of choice went unnoticed. One teacher, who was repeatedly and disruptively approached by officers as he stood on the side of the room with a sign that said “dangerous free speech” jokingly recreated his sign, on smaller and smaller pieces of paper, as I documented on Twitter.

Some less humorous interactions included a brusque manhandling of Daniel Denvir of CityPaper, as he tried to photograph a police interaction with vocal protesters from at least ten feet away. I observed the interaction and he came close to possibly falling or damaging his camera.

The Approved Applicants
Five of thirty-nine charter school applications were approved, all with added stipulations and amendments to their proposal as determined by the SRC, all from charter school applicants with pre-existing relationships and a track record with running charter schools within the School District of Philadelphia. They have shorter, three-year charter contracts, their enrollment allotment schedules have been reduced, and in a few of the cases in which it is applicable, riders were added that mandated that special preference should be made to students already waiting on other waiting lists within their individual systems.

There’s Independence Charter School West, whose sister application, Independence Charter High School was denied. Jimenez recused herself from both Independence Charter votes, citing a conflict of interest. KIPP, which had three new charter school applications to add to their operation, got one approval in KIPP Dubois Charter School. (KIPP West and KIPP North Philadelphia were rejected.) MaST Community Charter School was given approval for their Roosevelt Campus proposal, and TECH Friere was also given approval.

Another important note: the rest of the charter school applicants have a legal right under Pennsylvania code to appeal to the Charter Appeals Board, another state-appointed body. (We’ll have more on that later in the article.)

Historical Context
This will be the first time since 2009 that the School District of Philadelphia, lacking basic resources, will approve new charter school contracts…meaning that this has been a conflict that has been ongoing since before Governor Corbett entered office and waged almost a billion dollars in cuts on Pennsylvania public schools, revoked an equitable funding formula, and disbanded the regulation that requires the state to reimburse school district for funding losses due to charter schools. The School District of Philadelphia already sensed its inability to maintain the capacity to manage more schools, given their state and federal funding structures and many other challenges.

In despotic fashion, 2013 saw the closure of 23 Philadelphia public schools due to lack of funding, with only four schools saved from the chopping block: Bayard Taylor Elementary School, Paul Robeson High School, Theodore Roosevelt Middle School, and Thomas M. Pierce Elementary School. These closures were announced in the middle of the school year, and chaos ensued as entire neighborhoods saw the closure of their only close-by school options.

October 2014 was when the SRC cancelled the contract of PFT union members, making drastic cuts to their health benefits without any arbitration or communication. They did so on the legal basis that resources were limited and there were no other options left, a claim that isn’t that hard to believe, no matter what your political leanings on the (im)morality of the unilateral decision.

In Corbett’s final legislative session before handing over the keys to Governor Wolf, the state legislature successfully passed the cigarette tax bill, which granted the authority of the City of Philadelphia to levy a local tax on cigarette purchases that would be used for public schools. In an act of feigned self-designated heroism, Representative Daryl Metcalfe took to the House floor, decrying the bad policy that was levying a tax that is disproportionately going to affect the poor and unfairly denigrate them as those addicted to tobacco. Nonetheless, the bill passed after months and months of delay by various committees, which costed the school district millions of dollars in potential revenue. A committee vote by now mayoral candidate Senator Anthony Williams delayed passage, and when the bill finally came up for a final vote, a convenient rider was added, in which the state legislature demanded that the school district begin to consider new charter schools again.

Now, in February 2015, the same state-appointed body that broke previously agreed-upon union contracts under the pretense of fiscal responsibility announced the opening of five more schools without any presentation to the public as to how they will pay for it. As attendees exasperatedly exclaimed throughout the five hour meeting last night, some students are going without nurses, counselors, library and arts staff, and indeed, soap and toilet paper in the bathrooms, but the SRC enacted five new contracts for schools. As the Philadelphia Inquirer’s leading education staff writer, Kristen Graham, reported last year, one Philadelphia public school operates somehow with a $160 annual budget. Yes, you read that correctly. A must read if you are interested and have missed.

The Raw Data
Organizations like PCCY, the Public Interest Law Center, the Education Law Center, Education Voters of Pennsylvania were on standby throughout the meeting to provide the SRC with all sorts of critical information, from legal precedent of similar situations to testimony on their interactions and impressions from Harrisburg’s political climate, to ferocious testimony that has become the calling-card of now-declared Council-at-Large candidate Helen Gym.

As Gym and other witnesses pointed out: on the record, sworn-in testimony from the SRC and SDP painted a very accurate picture of its own fiscal distress, a few months ago, as cuts were made that predominately hurt students in traditional public school buildings via transference of pain to their teachers. Gym demanded reform to the way in which charters  are granted, in which now segregation is inherently encouraged and in which neighborhoods are heartbreakingly decimated and disempowered. Gobreski, the passionate advocate leading Education Voters of Pennsylvania, provided some words of wisdom to the voting body, informing them that a compromise toward corporate education reforms that legislators like House Speaker Turzai have pushed for will not necessarily mean a less adversarial relationship from them in the future. PCCY’s regular live-tweeting of data points as charter applicants made presentations emboldened observers to think critically, with facts about the racial, economic, and pedagogical diversity of students entering various charter schools, as well as facts about the fiscal impact on the entire city.

The Peanut Gallery
In case you haven’t been following this story every moment of your life, here are what some key political players had to say about the vote.

Governor Wolf, who does play a role in state level policy including appointments to the charter appeals board, released a statement after the vote:

“The Wolf Administration continues to believe that the district’s financial situation cannot responsibly handle the approval of new charter schools. Governor Wolf remains committed to restoring cuts and delivering more funding to public schools across the commonwealth to ensure our children have the resources necessary to succeed. It is imperative for both our children and our economy that we reverse Pennsylvania’s public education deficit.”

Wolf is currently being scrutinized by public education advocates for playing a weak if not nonexistent role in trying to prevent a full district charter school proliferation of the York City School District, where he resides and is a key stakeholder.

Former Councilman Jim Kenney (mayoral candidate), prior to the meeting:

“I am calling on the SRC to issue a moratorium on approving new charters at their Wednesday meeting. In order for Philadelphia’s school system to provide opportunity for every child, we have to stop pitting charters against traditional public schools. But that battle will not end until building a new charter does not divert critical funding from our public schools. The state must reinstate its full reimbursement to the District for charter costs and existing charters must undergo a full, independent review so that only properly-managed, high-quality charters receive public dollars of any kind. Charters have an important role in our city’s school system, but they cannot truly fulfill their missions and receive the community support they deserve until it’s no longer true that for every child they help, dozens of public school students are hurt.”

Former DA Lynne Abraham (mayoral candidate), yesterday:

“I urge the SRC to delay and defer the approval of any new charter schools. The SRC should not bow to pressure from outside interests to approve new charter schools. The apparent haste to approve new charter schools is unwarranted, and will virtually break the back of the school budget already under considerable stress. The rapid growth of charter schools has imperiled our children by removing huge amounts of money from the public school system. The proposed move by the SRC tomorrow will irreparably harm our children.”

State Senator Anthony Williams (mayoral candidate), to Philly Mag last week, when asked about the vote:

“I don’t have a number about how many they should approve. I think that we should be looking at high-performing seats. We’ve lost some charters and we have obviously some seats in Philadelphia in traditional public schools that are not working. … Anybody who performs well … we should be looking at them to [fill] those holes. … The district can do that as well. … So I don’t think there should be this push for a whole host of 40 new charters just because they’re charters. I mean I support charters, but I’m not supporting charters just because they’re charters. I’m supporting charters because they provide good, public education in communities that don’t have that. So that should be the measurement of what the SRC considers.”

Former PGW spokesman Doug Oliver (mayoral candidate) and T Milton Street also told the Inquirer that they are in favor of a moratorium.

Helen Gym, candidate for council-at-large and education advocate who supports a moratorium on new charter schools, was the only council candidate in attendance inside the meeting, to this reporter’s knowledge, although at-large candidate Sherrie Cohen was spotted outside collecting petition signatures for her candidacy.

What Legal Experts Say
A representative from the Education Law Center was able to provide me with a copy of attorney David Lapp’s full remarks submitted to the SRC yesterday, as most of what he said was cut off due to speaker time constraint rules passed for this “quasi-judiciary” metting. His statement served as helpful legal advice to members of the SRC, especially chairman Bill Green, who had made recent statements to the press that indicated he didn’t understand the legalese. Green believed that the SRC was required, based on the new cigarette tax law, to truly consider (and potentially approve) all of the 39 applications submitted, regardless of the fiscal hardship of the district.

Lapp clarified. “There have been recent public comments that suggest a mistaken belief that the charter law “requires” the SRC to approve new applications without considering the impact on district students.”

(That is the framing of the debate from charter school advocates and members of the SRC.)

“To the contrary, since the District has been declared to be in “fiscal distress” and the state Constitution still requires that there be a ‘thorough and efficient system of public education’, the impact of charter expansion on all students should be the most important consideration of all. But since questions have been raised, I wish to briefly clarify why such considerations are also legally valid.

The bottom line is that there has never been a CAB or court holding that a fiscally distressed school district is prevented from considering the educational impact on all students, including students in district schools and existing charter schools, when deciding whether to approve a new charter school application. In addition, no cases have addressed these issues since the charter reimbursement was eliminated.” 

Since this change in policy by Former Governor Corbett, in which reimbursements are not made to school districts, creating undue stress, Lapp noted,

“There is no case involving districts that have been declared in fiscal distress. There is no case involving districts that have had to cut educational resources. There is no case involving districts that have had to shut down neighborhood schools (literally decreasing options and choices for families in direct conflict with the intent of the charter law to ‘expand choices…within the public school system’). There is no case involving districts that have inadequate librarians, counselors, nurses, art, and music teachers. There is no case decided since the charter reimbursement was eliminated.”

Lapp advised the SRC to use this information to make the legal case to deny all charter school applications at this time. He noted that although it isn’t guaranteed to work, there is literally no precedent so one can only find out through trying.

Final Thoughts
The Philadelphia education community, made up of charter and traditional public school families, has many questions left unanswered – questions about the efficacy of special education and ELL programs, about safety within neighborhood schools, about future funding streams, and as well as about future approvals of charter schools that provide short-term results for individual children but only increase the scarcity of resources within the public educational system. People are left wondering if the SRC will ever function as a body without blatant conflicts of interest, and if not (or so) ,if the body will potentially be disbanded. Communities have no idea if the vacant school buildings on their block will be sold off to private entities for pennies on the dollar, or if someday they’ll see the education system return to them.

Philadelphians, and Pennsylvanians across the Commonwealth, cannot predict if or when a funding formula for public schools will be created, a reform that will reduce the burden on local taxpayers with and without children and make the school budgetary process more predictable and sustainable. People wonder if their favorite teacher will continue to teach and continue to have healthcare, and they worry about the abuses against free speech that left five educators and stakeholders in a jail cell last night. Will their students, both charter and traditional SDP, end up in those cells someday, or will our children receive the public education that is their right?

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