Are Charters Under Attack? Facts Show Otherwise

Philadelphia charters

by Lisa Haver
January 30, 2018

Charter CEOs and supporters held a rally at City Hall on Tuesday January 30 to ask for a “seat at the table” when the new school board replaces the School Reform Commission. Several City Councilpersons attended the event, held in the Mayor’s Reception Room.

APPS members have said consistently that district budget problems stem not just from a lack of funding, but from the spending priorities of the SRC which keeps resources out of classrooms. Consulting fees, faux graduate school, training by outsourcing by unqualified and inexperienced people: Teach For America, The New Teacher Project, Relay Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, Boston Consulting, Jounce, Institute for Student Achievement, etc.

But the biggest waste of money in the SD budget is the funding of malfunctioning charters. Report after report, including the latest from Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY), shows that district schools outperform charters. Charter supporters say that they only support “high-quality” charters, that they want the failing charters closed. But when they have the opportunity to prove that, they are nowhere to be found. Some examples:

Aspira Inc.: operates 5 charters in the city, including two “Renaissance” charters. Olney High and Stetson Middle have been cited for plummeting academic scores, organization/board violations, financial fraud and misuse of taxpayer funds—which they admitted to via their lawyer, Kenneth Trujillo, on the record at the July 2016 SRC meeting. News reports that Aspira CEO Alfredo Calderone named in several sexual harassment complaints, one settled by Aspira for $350K; Calderone is still the CEO. Several news reports of fraudulent contracts, labor harassment, misuse of taxpayer funds. The SRC tabled the vote for non-renewal, recommended by its own Charter Schools Office (CSO), for 19 months. APPS members asked almost every month when the SRC would act. Both Renaissance schools have gone far beyond their 5-year term. No charter advocates said a word about Aspira’s violations and academic failure at any SRC meeting.

Universal: CSO recommended non-renewal for Audenried and Vare, both Renaissance charters that failed to meet standards in all three major categories. SRC tabled vote for 19 months. Again, no word from charter supporters.

CSO cited over 25 reasons—financial, academic, and organizational—for recommending non-renewal for Vare. Vote postponed by SRC until January 2018. Updated CSO report showed DECLINE in test scores since original evaluation; CSO again recommends non-renewal. SRC voted to have CSO “negotiate” a new charter, actually a de facto renewal.

Memphis Street Academy: Renaissance charter took over John Paul Jones Middle School 5 years ago; managed by American Paradigm Company. Recommended for non-renewal by CSO for not meeting standards in all three categories. SRC voted to postpone April 2017 to “get more information” even though the CSO had completed the same evaluation report they did for all other charters. Updated report by CSO in January 2018 showed DECLINE in test scores since original evaluation; CSO again recommended non-renewal. SRC voted to have CSO “negotiate” a new charter, presumably one in which they would actually meet at least one standard. Another de facto renewal. No word from the advocates of “high-quality” charters.

Mastery: 3 Renaissance charters—Shoemaker, Gratz, and Clymer—came up for renewal in April 2016. CSO recommended “renewal with conditions”. Conditions, as explained to SRC Commissioner by CSO Director DawnLynne Kacer at SRC meeting, simply means taking steps to meet standards that have not been met. SRC postponed those votes indefinitely, with no indication of what they or Mastery is doing to rectify the situation. Why is Mastery having a hard time meeting basic standards?

Mastery II: several Renaissance charters recommended in April 2017 by CSO for renewal with conditions; Mastery refused to agree to conditions. Again, why is Mastery having such a hard time meeting basic standards? There is a question of whether Mastery and other Renaissance schools are actually being compared to “peer” schools. Recent investigation has shown that the Renaissance charters are opening their doors to students outside their catchment areas while denying admission to students who live nearby. The 2015-16 SPRs (district ratings) indicate that all of Mastery’s schools fall into either the Intervene or Watch performance tiers (the two lowest) for Overall Performance and for Achievement.

Mastery III: Mastery launched an aggressive and divisive campaign for the takeover of Wister Elementary two years ago. Mastery was subsequently cited and fined by the state Ethics Board for illegal lobbying. Superintendent Hite, after hearing from APPS members at SRC that incorrect data was used for Wister takeover, withdrew the school from the Turnover list. Mastery continued its lobbying, with the help of Philadelphia School Partnership board members; then-Commissioner Sylvia Simms (who met with Mastery supporters but not Wister families against the takeover) introduced a resolution during the SRC meeting which passed.

Charter renewals 2017: over 20 charters came up for renewal in April 2017; only a handful voted on by SRC. Most postponed indefinitely, including Belmont Charter, which failed to meet standards in EVERY category.

Charters are now making the claim that they should only be compared to schools within their geographic area.  The problem with this complaint, however, is that charters, including renaissance charters, actively recruit from outside of their catchment, whereas neighborhood children comprise nearly the entire population of district schools.  As a result, district schools have a higher percentage of minority, low income, English language learners, and special education students than charters.

Khepera Charter: the district just concluded official hearings (with a hearing examiner and attorneys on both sides) which showed that Khepera failed to meet standards in every category and is on the brink of financial failure. Khepera failed to pay its rent and was given an eviction notice. Khepera failed to pay its teachers. Khepera is still open.

Eastern University: charter revocation process underway. Like all charters, EU has the right to appeal the SRC’s decision, the hearing examiner’s decision, and the state’s decision. Should the state actually reject its appeal, the charter can appeal to Commonwealth Court. When public schools are targeted for closure, there is no requirement for any hearing, and there is no appeals process.

For six months, between October 2016 and May 2017, the district held secret meetings at 440, with charter CEOs including those from Mastery, Russell Byers, and Global Leadership Academy, for the purported purpose of formulating a new charter law. Several high-ranking district officials attended. One suggestion from charter managers: “high performers” should receive near-automatic renewals and be allowed to expand much more easily. Few things speak to the district’s willingness to listen to charter managers and carry out their wishes more than this. Members of the public who try to get answers from the SRC about why they continue to spend taxpayer money on malfunctioning charters get 3 minutes a month.

State Auditor General Anthony DePasquale has called the PA Charter Law “the worst in the nation”, mostly because it provides inadequate oversight of charters. State taxpayers have lost millions because of criminal activity of charter operators. Agora Charter’s Dorothy June Brown was one of the biggest charter operator embezzlers of public money, but unfortunately, only one of many.

The SRC and Harrisburg have created and maintained a fertile environment for charters in Philadelphia. They are hardly under attack.

The Philadelphia Public School Notebook published an article on the Charter School rally on Tuesday, January 30th.

Hundreds rally in City Hall for charter schools | Philadelphia Public School Notebook – January 30, 2018

See comments from APPS members after the article.