by Lisa Haver
[Note: Deborah Grill, Ken Derstine, Diane Payne and Lynda Rubin contributed to this edition of Eyes.]
Seventeen years ago, after a vote taken in the middle of the night in Harrisburg, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania took control of the School District of Philadelphia. The School Reform Commission supplanted the School Board as the governing body of the city’s public schools. Few of us could have imagined the devastation wrought by this body: over thirty neighborhood schools shuttered, public schools handed over to private managers, charter expansion and charter fraud, outsourcing union jobs, and a succession of superintendent/CEOs whose policies and practices opened up a marketplace for corporate education reformers and outside vendors.
The SRC will hold its final meetings this month. The SRC will go out the same way it came it—by withholding important information from the public. Up until last week, the SRC had posted two June meetings; one is tentative as action is contingent on the budget vote of City Council. On June 14, the SRC posted a small notice (the minimum notice required by law) in the classified section of the Philadelphia Inquirer of a Special Meeting to be held at 1 PM on June 21 for the purpose of voting on renewals of seventeen charters. Rather than put the charter renewals on the agenda of the regular 4:30 meeting, they decided at the last minute to have two separate meetings on the same day. Will working parents be able to attend a 1 PM meeting? Unlikely.
The notice on the district webpage (not on the homepage but on the inside SRC page) says that speakers who will be addressing items on the agenda will be “prioritized”. Here’s the problem: the SRC has not posted any resolutions for this meeting. We know which schools are up for renewal; they are listed on the Charter Schools Office page. So why aren’t they listed as resolutions? The actions of the SRC, particularly in recent years, leave little doubt about the district’s increasing accommodations to charter operators and investors at the expense of district schools.
A June 11 Philadelphia Public School Notebook/WHYY story, “Philadelphia School District Nears New Accountability for Charters”, offers a disturbing account of secret negotiations between the district and charter officials. The subject: how to lower the bar on charter achievement once again.
The School District of Philadelphia has a new tool for evaluating its charter schools, one that it hopes will help end a long and public tug of war with the city’s growing charter sector.
If charters accept the terms in this revamped rubric — known as the “charter school performance framework” — the District will have a clear and mutually agreeable road map for deciding whether a school should close when its term expires or remain open for another five years.
If charters blanch at the deal, the incoming school board will inherit a dispute fraught with political implications and real-world consequences for tens of thousands of children.
To be clear: the SRC has always had an accountability framework for rating charters. The fact that they ignored it doesn’t mean there wasn’t one. When the SRC’s Charter Schools Office (CSO), citing over thirty reasons, recommended non-renewal in 2016 for two Aspira Renaissance charters, Olney High School and Stetson Middle School, the SRC voted to postpone the vote, ostensibly to allow Aspira Inc to get its financial house in order. Two years later, the SRC finally voted not to renew. That same year, the CSO recommended non-renewal for two Universal Renaissance charters, Audenreid High and Vare Middle. Those two votes were also tabled and have not been brought back for a vote, although both schools continue to operate with tax dollars, as do the two Aspira charters. The fact that the SRC ignores overwhelming evidence outlined by the CSO does not mean that there has not been a rating system. It means that the SRC has a history of caving to political pressure and selling out the best interests of the school children who attend actual public schools. The Notebook article states:
The new tool is an attempt to break this stalemate, and it was developed with substantial input from the charter operators themselves. District leaders say it is far more transparent and consistent about what schools must do to meet District standards in academics, operations, and financial stability. They also hope it will create an ever-increasing academic bar for charters, one that ensures these publicly financed, privately run schools are superior to their District counterparts and worth the financial burden they place on the system as a whole.
In that spirit, the standard charter agreement has undergone “more than 60 negotiated changes” over the past year, according to Estelle Richman, chair of the soon-to-be dissolved School Reform Commission.
“These charter agreements incorporate a revised performance framework which provides charter schools with transparent and predictable accountability and ensures charter schools are quality options for students and families,” she said in a statement.
SRC Chair Estelle Richman told reporters that the charter agreement has undergone “more than 60 negotiated changes” over the past year. We intend to ask the SRC directly:
- When were these changes negotiated?
- Who was present during these negotiations?
- Why were these meetings, about a major policy change, kept secret from the public?
- Charter operators maintain that charters are public schools. Why would policy changes about any public schools be conducted in private?
- Why does the SRC allow the charter operators—the entities who are regulated—to determine how they will be regulated?
The district and the charter operators say that charters are public schools. Then all dealings with charter operators must be conducted in public and all information about them made available to the public.
Next SRC Meetings:
Thursday, June 21 2018 at 1 PM. Call 215-400-4010 (NOTE: Different number) by 1 PM the day before.
Thursday, June 21 2018 at 4:30 PM. Call 215-400-4180 before 3:30 PM the day before.