School choice advocates rally for greater charter expansion in Philadelphia

Parents who believe their children's interests are best served by charter schools rally in front of the Philadelphia schools administration building. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Parents who believe their children's interests are best served by charter schools rally in front of the Philadelphia schools administration building. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia charter school parents, students, leaders and advocates rallied Tuesday outside of school district headquarters, calling on the School Reform Commission to approve more charters.

A few hundred people listened to impassioned testimony from parents of students at Mastery, KIPP, Freire, and Boys Latin, and a student from Esperanza Academy.

“Your address should not determine whether you can get a great education,” said Elaine Wells, parent of two students at Boys Latin. “That is insanity.”

Freire Charter parent Anthony Harris lamented that the traditional public schools in his West Philly neighborhood were “failing.” 

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He says Freire, which hopes to open a second high school campus for 580 students in Center City, gave his daughter “tools to learn with.”

Vanessa Herrera, a senior at Esperanza Academy Charter School, said the school has given her more self confidence and has helped her connect more strongly with her Latino culture.

“I was fortunate enough to be selected through the lottery. Unfortunately there are hundreds of students on a waiting list,” said Herrera, urging the SRC to allow Esperanza to open a new K-5 charter.

Aside from the Renaissance initiative — in which charters assume control of a district neighborhood school — the SRC hasn’t authorized a new charter since 2007. 

Charter-advocates hope that trend will soon reverse as the SRC begins to abide by the new state measure which compels the five-member panel to hear new applications. If the SRC rejects a petition, applicants can now appeal to the state Charter Appeals Board. Unlike districts across the rest of the state, the SRC had previously been exempt from the appeals process.  That stemmed from when the state took over the Philly district and formed the SRC in 2001.

The legislative change was passed in September as an amendment to the cigarette-tax authorization bill. State Rep. John Taylor, Philadelphia’s lone Republican in Harrisburg, said its addition to the bill was crucial in corralling more GOP support for the $2-per pack tax hike.

“It was another reason that a member that wasn’t from Philly that would be subject to criticism for making a quote-unquote tax vote would vote for it,” Taylor said in July after he pushed to have the amendment added.

Some education advocates fear the measure could lead to unfettered charter expansion, which they say could could doom a district that’s already standing on tenuous fiscal ground. The district estimates that it incurs $5,000 in stranded costs – dollars some describe as “lost to education” – for every child who migrates from one of its schools to a charter.

These numbers in mind, district spokesman Fernando Gallard said that the SRC would follow the law in hearing new applications, “but [would] also will keep in mind the financial limitations that the district finds itself in.”

“One scenario could be that as charter schools close, we have the ability to open others,” said Gallard.

The deadline for applications is Nov. 15. Public hearings will be held for each application within 45 days of being submitted.

The Philadelphia Public School Notebook has reported that the district has received 46 letters of intent from charter organizations hoping to start a new school or expand an existing one.

The Notebook also reports that the district has reached out to local universities asking for volunteers to help review the applications.

Academically speaking, the city’s charter sector as a whole performs marginally better than the Philadelphia School district according to Pennsylvania’s school performance index.

Just as within the district’s slate of schools, the charter sector offers a wide range of quality. Some schools perform highly on state tests – others mediocre, others low.

Ashley Franklin hopes the SRC is compelled by KIPP’s expansion pitch.

She succeeded in getting one of her two school aged children into KIPP North, but her other child wasn’t selected in the lottery.

“We felt like we were making a decision to ensure a bountiful harvest academically for one child, and famine for the other,” said Franklin. “We had no explanation to offer or absolution to give, other than the upside of being able to apply next year and ‘wait and see what happens.'”

Until then, her child attends Gompers Elementary, near St. Joseph’s.

KIPP Philadelphia CEO Marc Mannella says he’s submitting proposals for three new K-12 charters that, in total, would serve an additional 4,140 students. His boosters comprised the overwhelming majority of the crowd.

“The people who are making decisions have a lot of hard decisions to make. We know that they care about having high-quality schools for all of their kids,” said Mannella. “We believe we could be a part of that solution.”

The afternoon event was organized by Educational Opportunities for Families, which spokesman Christopher Butler described as a “parent-driven” organization.

“There is no mission statement or website as of yet,” said Butler. “What you really have here is a group of parents and schools coming together to act on issues of importance to them.”

Butler said the group’s funding comes from the list of schools below, but wouldn’t clarify if they received additional dollars from any outside agencies or nonprofits.

“Funding, website, mission statement and the like are things that will be fleshed out more as the group continues to grow and formalize over the coming weeks and months,” he said.

Universal Charter SchoolsKIPP PhiladelphiaScholar AcademiesBoys Latin of PhiladelphiaMastery Charter SchoolsAmerican Paradigm SchoolsGlobal Leadership AcademyWissahickon CharterIndependence Charter SchoolByers Charter SchoolFreire Charter SchoolDiscovery Charter School

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