A state board has rejected conditions the Philadelphia School District placed on a new charter school’s approval, raising questions about how the district and others may handle charter applications and renewals in the future.
In addition to reducing enrollment, the district’s conditions had included a requirement that likely would have made the Franklin Towne Charter Middle School student body more diverse than the charter operator’s other predominantly white schools.
But the Charter Appeals Board voted 5-0 Tuesday to grant Franklin Towne’s appeal of those conditions, according to the state Department of Education.
The applicants had argued that even though the former School Reform Commission voted to grant them a charter in April 2018, it didn’t actually act on their application.
That’s because the conditions the SRC placed on the new school — including reducing its anticipated enrollment from 450 to 300 — “materially” altered its application, according to the appeal, which said the school wouldn’t be able to operate financially under the requirements.
The district — which regulates 89 charter schools that serve 70,000, or one-third of Philadelphia public school students — often sets conditions when approving new charters, or renewing existing ones. The charters must accept the conditions to secure a signed agreement with the district.
“They’ve kind of weaponized the whole condition thing,” said David Hardy, executive director of Excellent Schools PA and a longtime charter advocate.
Kevin McKenna, a lawyer who represents charter schools in Pennsylvania, said the appeals board’s decision could cause school districts to hesitate when placing conditions on charters.
It also “has a potential impact on current renewals, because school districts have shown a penchant on waiting out charter renewals," McKenna said, referring to districts placing conditions on charters and then leaving the agreements unsigned until charters consent to them.
The extent of the decision’s impact will depend on the appeals board’s written opinion, which hasn’t been issued yet, said Jeffrey Stacey, a lawyer for Franklin Towne.
But it means that “under the law as written, authorizers have a very specific job to do when they’re considering a charter application,” Stacey said Thursday. He said Franklin Towne will now be able to move forward with its plans to open a stand-alone middle school, which it has been seeking to do for years — possibly on track for a 2020 opening.
Stacey said he had not heard whether the Philadelphia Board of Education plans to appeal.
Imahni Moise, a spokesperson for the school board, said Thursday that board members were “still in discussion with their lawyers and don’t have a response at this time.”
Franklin Towne, which currently has an award-winning high school and elementary school, had sought to open a new school for 450 students in grades 6-8 in Bridesburg.
The SRC initially denied the application in February 2018. After Franklin Towne submitted a revised application, the commission granted it with conditions that April.
The SRC "remains concerned about the enrollment practices at existing Franklin Towne schools,” contributing to “a lack of diversity” in the student bodies, then-Commissioner Estelle Richman said at the meeting, according to the Notebook. The SRC has since been replaced by the school board.
The conditions set by the SRC included requiring the proposed school to have board members who did not sit on the board at its high school; to revise its management agreement with the high school; to select students from a waiting list if seats became available rather than holding new lotteries; and to implement a recruiting plan to draw 50% of its students from the 19134 and 19135 zip codes.
Franklin Towne’s existing schools, which are open to students from across the city, enroll predominantly white students — 81% at its elementary school in Bridesburg, and 67% at its high school in Frankford. The zip codes specified by the SRC are about 40% white, 40% Hispanic, and 20% black.
School District officials last year said they were looking into a complaint that Franklin Towne’s high school rescinded admission to a student after learning of her special-education status.
Stacey said Thursday that Franklin Towne’s main issue with the SRC’s conditions was the reduction of the proposed school’s enrollment.
In its appeal, Franklin Towne argued that reducing its enrollment to 300 “would render the school nonviable as a financial matter.” Charter schools are funded by districts based on enrollment.