Philadelphia Charter Schools Are Placed Under Increased Oversight

Published March 1, 2008

Charter school operators and parents of students enrolled in the schools will be on the alert in April when a task force appointed by the School Reform Commission of Philadelphia reports its initial findings on the schools’ academic programs, costs, and facilities.

The task force was created to address operators’ and parents’ concerns after the commission approved a new policy last December increasing its oversight of the city’s 61 charter schools. Charter operators say the district is trying to micromanage their schools.

Initially scheduled for consideration at the commission’s November meeting, the vote on the policy was postponed until December 19 after some charter operators said they had not had an opportunity to review it.

Tim Daniels, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Charter Schools, said his group’s members were gravely concerned by what they saw as the beginning of a slippery slope of increasing regulation by the commission.

“It is the beginning of death by 1,000 cuts,” Daniels explained. “The more you regulate an independent school, the less independent it becomes, and the more it begins to resemble all the other traditional public schools.”

Legal Exemption

The new oversight policy details how the district will evaluate new charter applications and monitor charters it has already authorized. When considering charter renewals, the policy stipulates the commission will consider the school’s fiscal management and whether it is meeting academic standards of the federal No Child Left Behind law. The new policy also allows the district to visit charter schools more often.

One of the most significant changes would give the commission the flexibility to consider charter applications every two years instead of annually. That would violate the state’s 1997 charter school law, but the legislation that allowed the state to take over Philadelphia schools in December 2001 exempts the School Reform Commission from many of the charter law’s provisions.

In response to charter operators’ concerns, the commission also established a charter task force. Its membership will include charter operators, parents, and city officials. The task force will study the schools’ academic programs, costs, and facilities and consider ways in which the Philadelphia School District can assist them.

Ongoing Struggle

Kara Hornung, director of communications at the Center for Education Reform, a charter school advocacy group in Washington, DC, said these developments are part of a continuing process in the city.

“Charters have faced plenty of ups and downs in Philadelphia as varying agencies struggle with losing–and sometimes gaining–control,” Hornung explained.

“Whatever the outcome or purpose of this new task force in Philadelphia,” Hornung continued, “we hope the education reform experience of the past seven years continues to embrace external partnerships and create an environment of competition and reform that has dramatically improved public education in the City of Brotherly Love.”

Daniels agreed. “Parents want more options for their children, not less,” he said. “Charter schools are a vital piece of the educational picture for the students and families of Philadelphia.”

Andrew T. LeFevre ([email protected]) is executive director of the REACH Alliance and REACH Foundation in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.