The Philadelphia school board on Thursday night unanimously denied three new charter school applications, a vote that seemed to signal a shift from the policies of the old School Reform Commission.
Members of the board, appointed by Mayor Jim Kenney last year as the city took back control of its schools from the state, cited weak applications by the proposed charters’ leaders. Board members said the applicants failed to demonstrate they could fulfill their promises, whether because they didn’t provide curriculum details or proof of demand for the schools, or because their existing schools didn’t warrant replication.
They also indicated they were looking more broadly at the role of charter schools, which enroll about 70,000, or one-third of, public-school students in Philadelphia.
Of the idea that turning publicly funded schools over to private operators would improve education, "we all know the promise has not been realized,” said Christopher McGinley, a board member who previously served on the SRC.
The state-controlled SRC, which governed the School District for 17 years, was generally seen as warm to charters. It approved three last year. Philadelphia currently has 87 charter schools.
While charters have been popular with thousands of families — 30,000 students applied through a new citywide system this year — they face questions over uneven performance and their impact on the rest of the School District.
The applicants denied Thursday were Frederick Douglass Charter High School, proposed for Francisville; Joan Myers Brown Academy, for West Philadelphia; and Tacony Academy at St. Vincent’s, Tacony. Proponents of the schools had testified, including Joan Myers Brown, the Philadanco founder and namesake of the charter school proposed by String Theory Schools.
Jason Corosanite, chief innovation officer at String Theory, said he was “obviously disappointed” and disagreed with the board.
“We are evaluating our options and will meet next week to look at a possible appeal,” he said.
Under the state’s charter law, the applicants have the right to resubmit applications to the school board. They may also appeal to the state’s Charter Appeals Board.
The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers had opposed the new charters, as did traditional public-school advocates, who told the board Thursday that Philadelphia cannot afford more charter schools. In Pennsylvania, school districts pay charters based on enrollment and what the districts spend per pupil.
Board President Joyce Wilkerson, who also served on the SRC, said the board had a “clearer focus on the quality of the education the kids are getting.”
“It really has been building a shared goal around a lot of the challenging issues. That wasn’t really always present under the SRC,” Wilkerson said.
Donna Cooper, the executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, said the vote reflected an evolution in the charter consideration process.
“We have all evolved to be able to make better judgments on what is quality and not quality,” said Cooper, a former top aide to Gov. Ed Rendell. “Based on what I understand from these applications, they were just not well done.
“This is why local control matters. For years, a state takeover body sold the idea that our public schools’ most basic needs and rights had to be sacrificed in favor of reckless and massive charter expansion –– no matter the quality of the charter or the impact on the School District,” said City Councilwoman Helen Gym.
The school board also heard impassioned testimony from students opposed to a proposed policy change that would compel all district high schools to use metal detectors. Currently, all but three — Science Leadership Academy, Science Leadership Academy at Beeber, and the Workshop School — use detectors.
“It is my firm belief that this policy is a divestment from students and an investment in the school-to-prison pipeline,” said Amir Curry, a student at SLA Beeber. Several hundred students from his school and others signed a petition opposing the detectors.
The board will consider the policy at its next meeting, and members signaled it will be a controversial vote. Angela McIver and Mallory Fix Lopez said they were staunchly opposed.
Julia Danzy said she feared criminalizing students, but said that some parents want and schools need metal detectors, and that “should any child be harmed, even if it was someone who spoke out against this tonight, there would be a lawsuit.” If the district has metal detectors in one high school, it should have them in all, Danzy said.