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Reformers want to close bad Philadelphia charter schools

By   /   September 17, 2015  /   News  /   No Comments

PHILADELPHIA — A pair of school advocacy groups wants the city’s worst charter schools to close.

A position paper, co-authored by Philadelphia School Advocacy Partners and Philadelphia Charters for Excellence, recommends shuttering the city’s lowest-performing charters as a means of creating better options for parents. For the plan to succeed, the groups endorse expanding high-performing charters, which would offer seats to the displaced students.

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HIGH STAKES TESTING: Philadelphia school reform groups want to shut down the city’s worst charter schools and expand charters that are excelling.

“For the charter movement in Philadelphia to grow and flourish and to be successful, we need to make sure that we’re being held to the same standards, and that we’re holding up our end of the bargain,” PCE Executive Director Amy Ruck Kagan told Watchdog. “The only way we are going to see sustained growth is by closing down the ones that have been chronically under-performing and create room for those operators that are doing things the right way.”

Similar to traditional district schools, performance among charters falls along a bell curve, according to the paper, “Better Isn’t Good Enough: The Path to Improving Philadelphia’s Charter School Sector.” While a quarter of all charter schools outperform district schools in math and reading scores, less than a fifth of all charters in the country performed worse than neighborhood schools in those subjects.

“You have to be able to make these really hard decisions,” Kagan said. 

The paper cites data, compiled by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, finding up to 1,300 charter schools nationwide are among the lowest 15 percent of schools in their respective states.

“Charter performance in Philadelphia mirrors the national trend,” according to the paper. “While many charters achieve impressive results, others fall short, struggling to outperform even low-performing district schools. Thus, while Philadelphia should redouble efforts to replicate or expand charters that are working, we also must close or transform those that consistently underperform.”

The paper was sent to members of the School Reform Commission, which controls the School District of Philadelphia. Neither the district nor SRC commissioner Bill Green, who has supported charter expansion in the past, responded to requests for comment.

Related: PA charter school reform hinges on “accountability.”

Under the single-authorizer structure in Pennsylvania, opening and closing charter schools falls on individual districts. In Philadelphia, a district that has faced years of financial challenges and operates with a small charter office staff, it’s a challenging and costly task to close bad charter schools, requiring years of reviews, hearings and appeals.

Steps to close a poor-performing charter school include the following:

  • A notice of nonrenewal or revocation is issued by the SRC.
  • A public nonrenewal/revocation hearing is held before a hearing officer.
  • The public is given a 30-day comment period.
  • The hearing officer presents a recommendation to the SRC.
  • The SRC votes on whether to not renew or revoke the charter or to allow it to remain open.
  • The charter school may appeal the SRC’s decision to the Charter Schools Appeal Board.

Between 1997 and 2012, only three charter schools were shuttered. Over the past three years, the district has flagged eight charters for poor performance.

“What’s clear is that, in Philadelphia, the charter sector is strong, but it could do better,” PSAP spokesman Jacob Waters told Watchdog. “There are so many high-performing charter schools in the district, and their expansion would give many more students the opportunity to get a great education.”

Closing a charter school can be dicey, especially because parents have chosen to send their children their instead of other district options. So where would displaced students go if their charter school is closed?

“Closing charter schools really only works when you are expanding the high-performers,” Waters said. “Frankly, I think the reason the district has struggled to close low-performing charters is that they haven’t been expanding as much as they should.”

The paper’s authors hope to attract more quality school operators who, they claim, have been reluctant to come to Philadelphia. Part of the challenge in attracting those charter operators is that Philly has been closed to any new charters for the better part of the past decade.

Last year, the SRC accepted applications for new charter schools for the first time in seven years. There was a moratorium on new charters because of the district’s bleeding finances.

Five of 39 applications were approved, and the process is set to begin again in November.

“I would love for Philadelphia to be in the running to get them,” Kagan said.

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Evan was formerly a Pennsylvania-based education reporter for Watchdog.org.