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Charter advocates back closing badly performing peers

It may sound counterintuitive, but two Philadelphia organizations that favor expanding successful charter schools are calling for changes to make it easier to close charters with poor academic track records.

It may sound counterintuitive, but two Philadelphia organizations that favor expanding successful charter schools are calling for changes to make it easier to close charters with poor academic track records.

In a position paper scheduled to be released Friday, the Philadelphia Charters for Excellence and the advocacy arm of the Philadelphia School Partnership call on the School Reform Commission and the legislature to streamline the closing of charters that are chronically low performers.

Now, they say, the process can drag on for years "while students attending these low-performing schools continue to receive a substandard education."

But the document says it is equally important that the high-performing charter schools in the city get the green light to expand to help accommodate displaced students.

"One of the things that is clear is that some of the folks who have been critical of charter schools focus on closing low performers without enough regard for the families in those schools," said Mike Wang, executive director of the Philadelphia School Advocacy Partners. "You cannot aggressively close low performers without expanding high-performing schools."

Copies of the 12-page paper will be sent to SRC members, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., the district's charter office staff, and others.

"I think this will ruffle some feathers, but I hope it will start some needed dialogue," said Amy Ruck Kagan, executive director of Philadelphia Charters for Excellence. "PCE is committed to supporting quality schools."

She said that in exchange for being free from many strictures of district schools, charters are required to meet specific performance standards.

If charters fail to meet standards year after year, Kagan said, they should be closed or transformed, because the goal was to make sure students have access to good schools.

Among other things, the joint paper supports a bill introduced by State Sen. Lloyd Smucker (R., Lancaster) and State Rep. John Taylor (R., Phila.) that would create a statewide Achievement School District that could take over the lowest-performing schools, including charters.

The measure would give the statewide entity the power to close or transform troubled charters and remove their right to appeal to the state Charter Appeal Board. The targeted charters would have to take their cases to Commonwealth Court. That change, the paper said, would eliminate "the bulk of the appeal process."

Philadelphia is home to 83 charters that educate approximately 63,500 students. Their performance varies. While many charters outperform district schools, 19 percent scored below the district average in math and 14 percent did worse than the district in reading, according to a study released last spring by the CREDO Institute at Stanford University.

But the SRC closed only three charters for poor academics between 1997 and 2012, in part because of the lengthy appeals process outlined in the state law and the lack of staff and resources in the district's charter office.

After adopting new performance standards in 2012 and beefing up its charter office, the SRC moved to close seven charters and changed management at another.

The paper includes recommendations for further improvements in the district's oversight of charters, including annual reviews instead of waiting for five years when agreements are up for renewal.

"The recommendations in this report fit well with the national trend for greater accountability among charter schools," said Greg Richmond, president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

His Chicago-based organization was not involved with the paper but received a copy this week.

"Philadelphia has not just been lagging but was almost in the bottom of the barrel in terms of accountability," Richmond said. "For a city of that size, and the number of [charter] schools they have, they have closed almost nothing."

Robert Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said his organization also supports the philosophy of the position paper, including closing poorly performing charters.