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Many in the Philadelphia community believe charter schools create competition that fosters higher quality education, while some argue that other schools don't have the resources to compete.

Photo: Courtesy of Paul Sableman/Creative Commons

This week, the School Reform Commission could decide on some of 39 charter school applications. Three charter schools have applied to open in Penn’s ZIP code.

Philadelphia School Partnership is offering $35 million to the School District of Philadelphia to offset the financial impact of enrolling 15,000 students in new charter schools. Still, district spokesperson Fernando Gallard told the Philadelphia Inquirer that it would cost the district closer to $500 million.

This is the first time the SRC, Philadelphia’s school governing board, has accepted applications for new charter schools in seven years. As seems to be the norm nationwide when it comes to charter school expansion, the whole process has been rife with controversy.

“The debate is very polarized,” assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education Nelson Flores said. “I think the people on the extremes are the ones that are the most vocal. It’s hard to find common ground when there are people on extremes that are incompatible with one another.”

Varied models for charter schools exist in Philadelphia. Some are community organizations that open a one-off school to fill a need in a community, while others are less place-based and hope to create many versions of the same school.

“For a lot of different reasons, it’s become about trying to brand yourself and spread to as many different places as possible. And I think that is what has to led to most of the conflict,” Flores said.

He added that support for charter schools comes from the desire to create schools that fit the needs of specific communities and also to provide parents “school choice” — the ability to choose the right school for their child — as opposed to a catchment area neighborhood school.

“Pro-charter people would say that competition would make all schools better and anti-charter people would say, ‘It’s not really a competition because we don’t have the resources to compete with you,’” Flores said.

Critical Writing professor Amy Brown helped to write an open letter from the Caucus of Working Educators to the SRC urging them, like many other groups have, to reject all 40 applications. “[Competition] is not going to inspire traditional public schools to suddenly perform better,” she said.

A report released from Public Citizens for Children and Youth, headed by Penn alumna and lecturer in the Urban Studies Department Donna Cooper, pointed to the funds lost to the district for every child that switches from a district school to a charter school.

In response to that specific claim, the announcement of the $35 million offer is intended to “offset stranded costs associated with charter expansion, and to fund the transformation of district schools,” Executive Director of PSP Mark Gleason said in a release on Wednesday.

While some are questioning whether this surprising offer matches up mathematically to the amount needed to remedy costs related to charter expansion, others are wondering who the donors are. The district has not said whether or not they will accept the offer.

Penn’s Fels Institute of Government alum and PSP Director of Public Affairs Kristen Forbriger said that for her, it is important to look at schools based on their quality rather than parsing them out by type only. “Given the track record of several of the applicants, that has to be taken into consideration when there are so many families who are in search of better options for their children and there are schools that have proven the ability to provide a good education for students,” she said.

For this area in particular, two existing charter operators, Belmont and Independence Charter, are proposing high schools for the 19104 ZIP code. The Philadelphia Music and Dance Charter School would be a new K-12 school and is looking to find a location in University City. Decisions on some of the applications could be released as early as this coming week.

In late January, the SRC asked applicants to sign a waiver to extend the deadline until June 1, 2015, allowing for more time to vote on applications. The cigarette tax legislation from last fall that mandated applications be accepted annually also says that any rejections can be appealed.

The waivers were supposed to be due by noon on Friday, but the board at Independence Charter School has decided to delay their own decision on whether to sign the waiver until on or before Feb. 20.

Penn alum Michael Karp and his organization — the Community Education Alliance of West Philadelphia — are proposing Belmont Charter High School as the high school counterpart to their two existing schools. The SRC approved the sale by resolution of the former Leidy Elementary School on 1301 Belmont Ave. to Karp and his group in September 2014.

“You have to be fair and you have to be practical. I can understand the district saying, ‘Honestly, we’re out of money,”’ meaning SRC might want more time to consider the budget for next year, Karp said. They’ve signed the waiver and are allowing the district more time to vote even though they hoped to open the new school in the fall of 2015.

Karp said that Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell — who represents the district covering Penn’s campus — would be on the board for the new Belmont high school. Karp said having a councilperson on their side shows the SRC that they have community support. “We thought that she would be the best person,” he said. “Her focus is really helping underserved families.”

As to whether they will appeal if their application is rejected: “That’s a certainty,” Karp said.

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