Philadelphia Enters a Litigious Era in Charter Schools

Late Wednesday night, after the Philadelphia School Reform Commission approved five of 39 charter applications, KIPP Philadelphia CEO Marc Mannella gave his assessment of the decisions.
by | February 23, 2015 AT 3:30 PM

By Martha Woodall

Late Wednesday night, after the Philadelphia School Reform Commission approved five of 39 charter applications, KIPP Philadelphia CEO Marc Mannella gave his assessment of the decisions.

"One way to look at tonight was that it was a night only lawyers could love," Mannella told reporters after the SRC approved one KIPP proposal and turned down two others.

Meaning, next on the agenda: appeals.

Wednesday's SRC meeting was not only the first time the SRC had considered new proposals for traditional charter schools since 2007. It also was the first time in 14 years that rejected applicants can seek reversals in Harrisburg.

The law that allowed the state to take over the city schools in 2001 and replace the Board of Education with the SRC removed the appeal option for charter applicants. The statute that authorized a $2-per-pack cigarette tax for city schools restored the appeals.

Robert W. O'Donnell, an attorney who has handled charter appeals, said that the change gives rejected applicants "a legal remedy for an adverse decision."

Education advocates and political leaders were upset by the SRC's decisions because they said the cash-strapped district had a shortage of nurses, counselors, and supplies and could not afford any more charters.

The city's 84 charters enroll 62,358 students -- 31 percent of the 204,358 students in the district.

Charter advocates were angry and said the approvals would add spots for only 1,726 students in 2016 and not help thousands of families who are on lists waiting to get their children into charter schools.

Angry representatives from the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools predicted that all who were denied would take their cases to Harrisburg. But charter officials said they were huddling with lawyers and talking to their boards before they decide their next steps.

On top of that, language in the cigarette law also allows unsuccessful applicants to resubmit plans next fall.

SRC chairman Bill Green has said the commission will consider charter applications every year to comply with the law.

Mannella of KIPP said Friday he was not sure how his school would proceed because it had just received documents providing the rationale for the SRC votes.

Success and failure

Back when the Philadelphia Board of Education voted on charter applications, petitions to the state appeal board produced mixed results.

In 2000, the board authorized Independence Charter and what was then known as the Leadership Learning Partners Charter after the school board failed to vote on the applications within the 75 days required by the law.

Independence, a K-8 school in Center City, turned out to be such an academic success -- its proposal for Independence School West was one of the five new charters the SRC approved last week.

Leadership Learning, which later changed its name to Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners, abruptly closed its campuses in Northern Liberties and Frankford last fall amid financial collapse.

In addition to Independence and Leadership Learning, the state education website shows that the charter appeal board approved two other applicants from Philadelphia between 1998 and 2001. It turned down six others.

Even though the state took control of the public schools in 2001 because the district was in financial distress, one of the architects of the takeover law said finances were not the reason the law removed the appeals option for charter applicants.

State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.) said Friday that legislators had thought the appeals board would not be needed because the SRC was a state body. The governor appoints three members; the mayor appoints two.

"The general feeling was that the buck could stop with that particular entity because you would have a separate and independent evaluation of charters," he said.

An alternative

Evans, a charter proponent, did not vote for the cigarette tax, which he said was "a Band-Aid" that would not solve the district's financial problems.

He agreed, though, with the charter appeals language that was inserted into the cigarette bill by State Rep. John Taylor (R., Phila.) to help gain Republican support.

"I think there was a general sense -- and it varied depending on the member -- that this process should at least be open and allow applicants, parents, and kids to have this alternative," Evans said.

At the time, Taylor said: "All it does is give charters or proposed charters a right to appeal, just like in the other 499 school districts."

As Gov. Wolf's acting education secretary, Pedro A. Rivera is chairman of the seven-member appeals board, which meets nearly every month.

Wolf was opposed to the SRC's approving any more charters, because of the district's financial problems. Absent new state or local funds, district officials are projecting an $80 million deficit in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Rivera was unavailable to comment Friday, but he told WHYY Newsworks the day before that, by law, the board cannot consider the financial impact a proposed charter would have on a school district.

The charter appeals board considers only the quality of the proposed school and whether the application meets the requirements of the charter law.

(c)2015 The Philadelphia Inquirer