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Mayor Jim Kenney says Philly should have fewer charter schools. Their supporters push back.

At a Democratic mayoral debate Monday, the mayor said there should be "fewer" charter schools. Charter leaders and parents criticized the remark.

Charter-schools supporters rallied outside Philadelphia City Hall Tuesday, calling on elected officials to support the schools and their continued expansion in the city.
Charter-schools supporters rallied outside Philadelphia City Hall Tuesday, calling on elected officials to support the schools and their continued expansion in the city.Read moreMaddie Hanna

Mayor Jim Kenney was asked during Monday night’s Democratic mayoral debate whether there should be more, fewer, or the same number of charter schools in Philadelphia. He hesitated, then answered, “Fewer.”

The response fanned the flames at a rally of charter-school parents and leaders outside City Hall on Tuesday morning, ahead of a City Council hearing on the School District’s proposed budget, and a week before the primary election.

“We are under attack,” Amy Hollister, CEO of Northwood Academy Charter School, told more than 100 people gathered at Thomas Paine Plaza, many wearing T-shirts that read, “Respect My School Choice.”

Though 4,000 children applied to Northwood and were turned away this year due to lack of seats, Hollister said, Kenney “is not interested in more charters in our city.”

David Hardy, founder of the Boys’ Latin charter and executive director of the advocacy group Excellent Schools PA, said Kenney was ignoring the 70,000 children — one-third of the city’s public-school students — who attend charters.

“Last night, he said he’s only worried about two-thirds of public-school students,” said Hardy, whose group organized the rally.

Harrison Morgan, a spokesman for Kenney’s campaign, said that “we desperately need quality public schools in every neighborhood, whether they are district-run or charter schools.” But the mayor, Morgan said, believes “we need fewer low-performing charters."

While they are independently managed, charter schools are publicly funded. Research shows that Pennsylvania school districts, which pay charters based on enrollment, incur long-term costs after their students enroll in charters.

Supporters of traditional public schools say charters siphon funding without necessarily delivering better results. Yet they are a popular option with many city parents — and twice as many Philadelphia voters support as oppose them, according to an Inquirer poll last month.

After taking back control of its schools from the state last year, Morgan said, Kenney appointed “a diverse school board,” including “members who support school choice.” Earlier this year, the new board unanimously denied three new charter school applications.

On Monday night, the charter-school question came up briefly near the end of the mayoral debate. Kenney sighed and paused before answering that there should be “fewer” charter schools.

Former City Controller Alan Butkovitz said there should be the “same” number. State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams — who has supported charter schools — laughed at Kenney’s response, then answered, “Who knows?”

Among City Council candidates, 26 surveyed by the Inquirer Editorial Board said they supported charter schools, while 19 said they opposed them.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers also surveyed candidates, asking if they would commit to supporting “a city moratorium on charter schools.”

Until there are great schools in every neighborhood, said Jason Corosanite, CEO of String Theory Schools, “it’s not OK for candidates to be opposed to charter schools.”

A number of parents at the rally said their children had received more support in charters than traditional public schools.

Dalia Burgos, a parent at the Aspira-run Stetson charter — which is facing non-renewal — said she had two children who came from a “tough public school."

"They weren’t getting the education they needed,” Burgos said. “When my kids entered into a charter, I saw the difference right away.”

Crystal Morris, a Boys’ Latin parent, said she appreciated efforts to improve Philadelphia’s traditional public schools. “I’m sure a decade from now,” the school system will be different, Morris said.

But “we need a right-now solution," Morris said. For children, “it doesn’t matter a decade from now. It matters today."