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After a Philly charter school operator gave Pa. lawmakers $360,000, a law was changed. A critic calls it ‘very suspicious.’

Belmont Charter will be Pa.’s only “innovation school,” a status it received this month that allows it to seek waivers from federal and state requirements.

The Belmont Charter School.
The Belmont Charter School.Read moreDavid Maialetti / File Photograph

When Belmont Charter School in West Philadelphia reopens Thursday, it will have a designation unlike any other in the state.

The charter will be Pennsylvania’s only “innovation school,” a status it received this month under a quickly enacted change to state law that will allow it to seek waivers from federal and state requirements.

How Belmont got the title and what it might mean — for the school, the School District, and the charter school movement — remains a bit of a mystery.

Belmont leaders — including its founder, a West Philly landlord and generous political donor — say the new designation will allow the school to better serve needy students and provide more mental health services.

Critics question why the change was necessary.

“No one has any idea what this is,” said Donna Cooper, executive director of the advocacy group Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY) and policy chief for former Gov. Ed Rendell. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

The designation allows a school to request waivers from certain state and federal requirements, including academic testing, raising questions about whether Belmont could become exempt from standards for other schools. It was enacted June 28, two days after being added to legislation amending the public school code.

The designation was limited to schools in a federal Promise Zone in West Philadelphia that met additional criteria.

Belmont CEO Jennifer Faustman says the school wants to have a behavioral health provider located at the school rather than referring students — the vast majority of whom are living in poverty — to outside agencies.

“We have to develop a plan as a next step,” Faustman said, adding that the school has until Sept. 30 to submit an annual proposal to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The plan must also include any requests to waive regulations, she said.

Faustman said Belmont has been advocating for changes in the law “for years" — but said she didn’t know who wrote the language into the code that allowed Belmont to seek the innovation school designation.

Neither did Michael Karp, the University City landlord who founded the charter school in 2002. “I think this really came from Harrisburg,” he said Thursday.

Karp is no stranger to state politics. Last year, he donated $360,000 to Republicans in the Pennsylvania legislature — including $230,000 to the House Republican Campaign Committee and $100,000 to the Senate Republican Campaign Committee. The GOP holds a majority in both chambers, and the amendment changing the law was introduced by a Republican.

Karp denied that his donations played a role in the change. But he said he believed his advocacy for better integration of social services with schools had “resonated with people."

“We’ve had discussions, we’ve asked for something along this line,” he said. “I was very pleasantly surprised to see they did something.”

The timing of the amendment, the targeting of a selected school, and Karp’s donations “look very suspicious,” said David Thornburgh, president and CEO of the Philadelphia-based good government group Committee of Seventy.

“You’ve got a chain of circumstances which presents the appearance, somebody got a deal … because they’re a major donor,” Thornburgh said.

Jenn Kocher, a spokesperson for Senate Republicans, said in an email that lawmakers had been “looking for ways to bring innovation to education" for years. She said the matter had been discussed with Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, and lawmakers from both parties, and included in the 2018-19 budget. She also said it was discussed in a June 12 Senate Education Committee hearing "on the concept of innovation in education.”

“The merits of the policy are driving the policy, not campaign contributions,” Kocher said. She said the program was a pilot that could lead the state to develop a policy of “social wraparound services and program flexibility," including “testing flexibility.”

Karp said testing “has not been a concern of ours.” State standardized tests last year found 26% of Belmont students proficient in English and 15% proficient in math — better than similar schools but lower than the district average, according to a district evaluation.

Belmont, one of Philadelphia’s 87 charter schools, has about 780 students in grades K-11. Unlike charters that draw students from across the city, Belmont — a former district-run school that was turned over to Karp in 2002 — enrolls students from its neighborhood.

The legislation says the “innovation schools program” is meant “to study and evaluate innovative approaches to economically disadvantaged schools,” including workforce development programs, mentoring services, before- and after-school programs, and prevention measures.

The law limited eligibility for innovation schools to those in the West Philadelphia Promise Zone, a federal designation granted under President Barack Obama, stretching west of the Schuylkill to 48th Street, and south of Girard Avenue to Sansom Street. It’s the only neighborhood in the state to be designated as such.

Only schools in the bottom 5% of all Pennsylvania schools based on enrollment of economically disadvantaged students could apply, and only if they partnered with behavioral health specialists or “provided an integrated social service model.”

The new designation comes as Belmont has been trying to buy its building from the district, saying it’s in need of extensive repairs. After the amendment creating the innovation schools program was introduced, the Philadelphia school board pulled a vote on the sale from its June agenda. At the time, board President Joyce Wilkerson expressed concern the designation would allow Belmont to “become exempt from all state and local oversight."

She did not elaborate, and board members have since been silent on the issue.

The district currently audits, evaluates, and renews charters. Spokesperson Imahni Moise said the board is “still waiting to learn more from the Pennsylvania Department Education on the legislation."

The department did not respond to questions this week about the designation.

Cooper, of PCCY, said current law already permits schools to offer mental health services. She questioned whether the innovation schools designation was intended to enable Belmont to get more funding.

Asked whether the designation would allow Belmont to seek additional funding, Elise Corbett, a Belmont spokesperson, said: “Frankly, we don’t know the answer to that yet, but we do hope that opportunity becomes available.”