Pa.’s largest charter school wants to take over grades K-8 in Chester Upland

Buses from Chester Upland School District await dismissal from Chester High School. (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

Buses from Chester Upland School District await dismissal from Chester High School. (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

In what would be a first in Pennsylvania, a charter school is pushing to take over all traditional kindergarten through eighth grade education in its home district.

Chester Community Charter School (CCCS) already educates the majority of elementary and middle school students in the Chester Upland School District, located south of Philadelphia. Now, the operator has asked a Delaware County judge to approve a plan for converting the remaining K-8 buildings to charter schools.

Since the first charter school in the country opened in 1992, enrollment in these privately-run, publicly-funded schools has grown to more than three million students nationwide.

Still, total takeovers of public school districts by one or more charter operators are rare.

If successful, the petition would make Chester Upland one of the most charterized school districts in the country, among the likes of New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and Flint, Michigan.

Here’s what’s on the table, and how this situation compares to other districts that have undergone conversion.

What the charter company is proposing

CCCS currently enrolls more than half of the grade-school aged students in the Chester Upland School District and is the largest brick-and-mortar charter school in Pennsylvania with more than 4,300 students. Chester Charter Scholars Academy is the district’s only other brick-and-mortar charter with around 600 students.

Based on the most recent year’s state test scores, most of the district-run schools perform roughly the same, and in some cases better, than the charter schools.

Since 2012, Chester Upland’s schools have been under state control through a mechanism called receivership, after failing to pull themselves out of a debt crunch. Under that process, the Pennsylvania Secretary of Education appoints new leadership in school districts, but the state also may provide regular infusions of cash to turn a district’s finances around. A county judge must sign off on changes to who’s in charge, and regular financial recovery plans.

It’s through the newest iteration of that plan that CCCS hopes “to provide for the conversion of existing school buildings to charter schools” for those serving pre-kindergarten through eighth grade in the Chester Upland School District, its attorneys wrote.

“Petitioner believes that it is in the best interest of the school district” that charter schools “provide ideas and suggestions to those formulating the Recovery Plan,” they continued.

Attempts to reach CCCS CEO David Clark by phone and email were not successful.

Former receiver Peter Barsz declined to comment on the charter expansion before resigning.

“We are in the midst of preparing an amended recovery plan,” he said. “Ultimately, we want to put together a plan that will create a strong school district that will set our children up for future success.”

Teachers and the Chester Upland Education Association have criticized the petition, on the grounds of local charters’ performance and for potentially decreasing school choice locally.

Dariah Jackson works with special education students in grades 3-5 at Stetser Elementary, and is vice president of the CUEA.

“When they receive our students, can they educate them? We won’t be there to send them back. Throughout the school year, we receive a lot of students” from CCCS, she said. “That doesn’t give parents and children a choice.”

Supporters of the petition point out that the district has been in receivership for twice as long as the state law calls for, and remains deeply in debt.

“Receivership has really been a failure from the standpoint of accomplishing the financial stability that the district needs,” said Max Tribble, senior vice president and chief communications officer for CSMI, the for-profit management company that oversees CCCS. He said school conversions are one way “economic efficiencies” could be created.

A Delaware County Common Pleas judge will consider the charter petition at a hearing on Wednesday at 9 a.m. The teacher’s union is planning to protest the proposed charter expansion the day before, Dec. 3 at 4:30 p.m. in Eyre Park next to Chester High School.

What has this looked like elsewhere?

New Orleans, where 92% of students attend charter schools, remains the test case for districts considering charter conversion. Closer to home, the York School District was on the path to turning over its schools to a single charter company in 2015 when a state appeals court intervened.

In each case, there are unique circumstances.

After Hurricane Katrina, state, federal and philanthropic dollars poured into the Crescent City to rebuild its schools.

At the same time, a number of charter operators and education nonprofits moved in.

“In New Orleans, you have a whole bunch of providers come in and compete,” said Bruce Baker, professor of education at Rutgers, who called it an “all-hands-on-deck approach.”

While performance has improved in some schools and by some measures, overall results have been mixed. Those initial infusions of cash also ran out. The most recent round of state assessments show more charter schools than in previous years are earning a “D” or “F” for overall student performance.

In Chester Upland, a much smaller school with less outside investment, Baker said handing the keys to all K-8 schools in a district to a single provider like CCCS “seems like a recipe for disaster.”

Smaller, urban-adjacent school districts in Michigan provide another point of comparison.

In 2015, leadership in the tiny, poorly performing Highland Park School District, which is surrounded by the city of Detroit on all sides, signed over operation of it’s K-8 schools to a charter operator. Since then, several schools have closed due to low enrollment, and in the remaining schools, test scores remain low. High school students in the district attend Detroit Public Schools.

However, this scenario remains rare.

“We don’t typically see one large network driving policy,” said Nathan Barratt, Senior Director, Research and Evaluation with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

While having a “restart” by turning over control of public schools to a charter provider can help shake out corruption and inefficiencies, said Barrett, it tends to work better with more competition.

Otherwise, you can end up with “a different name” for a system that looks much like the district that existed before, he said.

This story has been updated to include comment from CSMI.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.