Armed with a $30 million federal grant, the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools will be soliciting proposals to expand charter schools in the state over the next five years, a new role for the advocacy organization.
Lenny McAllister, the coalition’s new executive director, told reporters Tuesday outside Freire High School, a Philadelphia charter, that the grant announced this month by the U.S. Department of Education would allow the organization to facilitate "the development, expansion, and replication” of charter schools throughout Pennsylvania.
In its federal grant application, the coalition said Pennsylvania, which currently has 158 charters, would “open, replicate or expand at least 18” brick-and-mortar charter schools by 2025. That pledge, however, depends in part on whether new charter proposals gain approval from school districts.
Publicly funded but independently run, charter schools have been popular with many families but a continued source of controversy for policymakers, producing mixed academic results and costing school districts.
“Pennsylvanians would be better served if [the coalition] spent its time and resources on improving the many already existing low-performing charter schools in the commonwealth before spending taxpayer money on expanding the sector,” said Susan Spicka, executive director of Education Voters PA, an advocacy group that supports traditional public schools.
In its application, the coalition pointed to academic results of Pennsylvania charters in urban settings, like Philadelphia — noting a report last year by Stanford University researchers that found urban charter students performed better on some measures than traditional public school peers.
McAllister on Tuesday cited waiting lists for brick-and-mortar charters in Philadelphia, where such schools already serve about 70,000, or one-third of public-school students. (Cyber charters, which draw students statewide, also enroll Philadelphia students.)
“We have to look across the diversity of the commonwealth and see where is the greatest need academically, where is the greatest craving for different options within schools," McAllister said, adding that the coalition would have to evaluate what proposals it receives from charter school operators.
The New Jersey Public Charter Schools Association also received a federal grant to expand charters there, for $63 million.
Describing “local failing schools” as “generational scourges" that had widened achievement gaps, particularly among Black students, McAllister said the coalition would partner with charter schools to “be healers of our current national crisis.”
Formerly the Western Pennsylvania director for the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think tank, McAllister last week was named the charter coalition’s executive director. He filled a position left vacant by Ana Meyers, who stepped down in June after posting on Facebook that protesters of the death of George Floyd "disgust me” and “all lives matter.”
Meyers, who had been commenting on a police report of “violent protests” in Philadelphia, later said her remarks had been “insensitive and inappropriate.”