This year, it’s Philly charter schools’ turn to wrestle with budget cuts

    Like a hurricane predictably making its way up the coast, the financial storm that battered the Philadelphia School District last year is now taking its toll on the city’s 80 charter schools.

    Some charter leaders are now speaking out about the damage.

    In the wake of a billion-dollar drop in state funding over the past two years and the hundreds of millions in district cuts that followed, all of Philadelphia’s charters were hit this year with a more than 7 percent reduction in the per-pupil payment that sustains them. That comes out to roughly $700 per child, or a loss of about $400,000 for a typical school of 600 students.

    Already, many city charters have responded with layoffs and salary freezes. They have also cut after-school programs, extracurricular activities, and supply budgets. Small, standalone charter schools are being hit the hardest.

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    But even Pennsylvania’s largest charter school manager warns that the cuts are threatening educational quality and are exacerbating already huge disparities between affluent and poor schools. So they are lobbying for more funding.

    “In wealthier suburban districts, [schools] are getting in some cases three times the reimbursement rate we’re getting here in Philadelphia,” said Scott Gordon, the CEO of Mastery Charter Schools, which operates 11 Philadelphia charters serving roughly 8,000 students.

    “We’re going to fight to make sure we get adequate resources,” he said.

    In Pennsylvania, the amount of funding a charter school receives depends on how much the local school district spent per pupil the previous year. Many have argued that this system is unfair. Next month, the state Legislature is expected to revisit a number of possible reforms related to the funding of state charter schools. Those bills narrowly missed becoming law in June.

    In the meantime, says Lawrence Jones, the president of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, charters in Philadelphia and across the state are going to have to make do.

    “Charter schools are going to have to do one of the things we were intended to do,” he said. “Be more efficient and find ways to serve [students] in a leaner and more creative way.”

    Progress is threatened

    At Mastery-Mann Elementary in the city’s Wynnefield section, signs of the cuts aren’t immediately evident.

    Mastery’s school year still started more than a week earlier than the district’s. On the second day of school, enthusiasm ran high as the school’s 5th graders filed into Mann’s cafeteria for their first “community meeting” of the year.

    Mann is one of nine struggling District schools that Mastery has converted to charters since 2005. In just two years, said Gordon, the school has seen its math scores on state tests shoot up about 30 points. Reading scores have gone up about 20 points. Violence is down, and the school is enrolling and retaining a high number of students from the surrounding community. Other “turnaround” charters run by Mastery have made similar progress.

    “These schools are now taking off,” said Gordon.

    But the roughly $8,000 per student that Philadelphia charters will receive this year for regular education students is the “absolute minimum” Mastery needs to continue its success, he said.

    Like other charter operators, Mastery has had to make painful cuts this year. At Mann and elsewhere, class sizes were increased by two students per room. Reading support staff were let go. Extracurricular activities and supply budgets were pared back.

    Like other school leaders, though, Mastery officials say they have been working feverishly to shield students and classrooms from feeling the impact of the cuts. Teachers still received performance-based pay increases this year and all Mastery students will still get art, music, Spanish and gym.

    “We haven’t cut back on the fundamentals we believe every child should get in a well-rounded education,” said Gordon.

    The real threat, he said, lies beyond this year. If the cuts go any deeper, Mastery will likely stop growing in Philadelphia and start looking elsewhere.

    “We have the ability to serve more kids and to serve the neediest kids,” said Gordon. “All we need is a reasonable reimbursement rate.”

    Cutting back, but asking for more

    In the five-year financial plan the District unveiled in April, officials projected that per-pupil spending will remain flat for the next three years, meaning that charters would also see no increases. Reduced spending on charters is a crucial component of the plan to eliminate the District’s projected $1.1 billion cumulative deficit between now and 2017.

    Jones of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools (PCPCS )says that charters that didn’t plan well and small charters with little room to cut will be hurt the most.

    “Probably 60 percent [of charter schools] are freezing salaries,” Jones estimated.

    Others are cutting positions and programming, he said. Some are worried about having to shut down.

    “It’s a possibility, specifically for smaller schools,” he said.

    Smarter operators saw the storm coming and began planning years ago. Now that the cuts have hit, said Jones, those charters are experimenting with new ways to save money, including online “blended-learning” opportunities for students.

    But belt-tightening is just the first step, agreed both Jones and Mastery’s Gordon.

    Like traditional school districts, charters also generally want to see more tax dollars go to public education.

    Jones said there are low-cost options the Pennsylvania legislature can approve that would help charters enormously, including a change in how charters pay debt service on bonds. That could save some operators tens of thousands of dollars annually, he said.

    PCPCS also supports plans to create a new statewide commission to take a holistic look at the mechanisms of charter funding, he said.

    “We want to look at how public education is funded, how the funds are directed, and how they’re spent,” said Jones. “Are there smarter ways to use the same pot of money?”

    But Gordon says that a more aggressive approach may be needed. Mastery is prepared to organize parents and supporters to fight for more funding.

    “I think we will be a lot more vocal in Harrisburg as well as in Philadelphia,” said Gordon. “We want our voice to be heard.”

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