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A $35 million attempt to add more charter schools

In an effort to enroll up to 15,000 more students in new charter schools, the nonprofit Philadelphia School Partnership has offered up to $35 million to the city School District.

Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership.
Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership.Read more

In an effort to enroll up to 15,000 more students in new charter schools, the nonprofit Philadelphia School Partnership has offered up to $35 million to the city School District.

The one-time gift, to be given over three years, would consist of up to $25 million for the district's charter costs and a separate $10 million offer to pay for in-house turnaround efforts.

It was not clear whether the School Reform Commission will approve any new charters or accept the sum, which was offered late Wednesday and which came as news to many - and proved immediately polarizing.

Applications for 39 charter schools await a School Reform Commission vote, which could be taken as early as next week. District officials have said approving more charters would mean taking money away from traditional public schools, and no new stand-alone charters have been approved in seven years.

The SRC has been under tremendous political pressure from all sides on the charter issue; the nonprofit's offer has only increased that.

House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) has made a number of recent trips to Philadelphia and said publicly he expects the commission to approve between 16 and 27 new charters.

Behind closed doors, sources have said, Gov. Wolf has said he wants the SRC to approve no new charters because the district can't afford them. The sources added that each side has threatened the SRC's existence if things do not go its way.

Mark Gleason, executive director of the nonprofit, founded in 2010 to raise $100 million to expand high-quality schools of all types, said the idea of the gift developed over the last few months.

The charter applications are a way to get more students into good schools, Gleason said, but finances are getting in the way.

He began to approach donors to see whether they had interest in making a pool of money available to "take the cost issue off the table."

"We are trying to make it cost-neutral for the district, so they consider the applications on their own merits," Gleason said. The nonprofit is making no recommendations on which charters to approve; that's up to the district, he said.

Gleason said the $25 million for charters would pay for three years of the district's so-called stranded costs - debt service, transportation, and other centralized costs it loses when students leave district schools for charters.

As for costs after the life of the gift, Gleason said, "Within three years, there will be a fair funding formula that will change the way public education gets funded. We respect the need for a long-term solution, but right now, there are tens of thousands of kids who need better schools."

With bipartisan support, a state commission is developing a fair-funding formula for public-school districts.

Gleason said he had had conversations about the possibility of such a gift with SRC Chairman Bill Green recently but did not receive a commitment from Green that the SRC would accept the money.

Fernando Gallard, a spokesman for the School District and SRC, said no decisions had been made about the gift.

"We're appreciative of the offer by PSP, and the SRC will continue its rigorous review process, which will focus on the merits of the applications as outlined in the Pennsylvania charter school law," Gallard said. "This has been our position since we announced this process."

Some education advocates were immediately skeptical.

Donna Cooper, executive director of the nonprofit Public Citizens for Children and Youth, pointed out that the Philadelphia School Partnership used roughly $2,000 per student as its stranded-cost figure, but the district uses $7,000.

"Were there an offer on the table that would make this revenue-neutral, that would be something the district should seriously consider," Cooper said. "I think that this isn't a serious offer, because there is no credible, independent source that is suggesting that the costs in the first year are going to be less than $7,000 per student."

Lisa Haver, cofounder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, was aghast.

"PSP is very influential in this school district, but it doesn't look out for the best interests of all the students," Haver said. "Schools are hanging by their fingernails to survive - schools that don't have staff, full-time nurses, and full-time librarians. And now, out of the blue, this nonprofit group says, 'Guess what? We have $35 million.' "

Haver, a retired district teacher, said the SRC "should reject their offer because one small group of people who are not elected officials and meet in private should not be making that decision based on how much money they have."

But some officials in Harrisburg were thrilled.

"It's up to the commission to meet its obligation to save kids and grant the request of these families to let their kids go to quality charter schools," Turzai said.

Mike Wang of Philadelphia School Advocacy Partners, the Philadelphia School Partnership's advocacy arm, said there had been no commitment from Harrisburg, but he was hopeful that if Philadelphia shows it is serious about getting more students into good schools, and if the SRC and charters can work together, it may help bring back state charter reimbursements.

"This is a great starting point for having that conversation," Wang said.

The program, which reimbursed districts for some of their charter costs, was eliminated in 2011. Officials have said the change has cost the Philadelphia district at least $100 million in state aid annually.

The district now has 67,000 students enrolled in 84 charters in Philadelphia.