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A Harrisburg bill would force Philly to add 3,000 charter seats each year

Speaker of the House of Representatives, Rep. Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, has introduced a bill that would require Philadelphia to add 3,000 charter school seats a year.
Speaker of the House of Representatives, Rep. Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, has introduced a bill that would require Philadelphia to add 3,000 charter school seats a year.Read moreMatt Rourke / AP / File

To reduce the number of children on waiting lists for charter schools, Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai has introduced a bill that would require the Philadelphia School District to add 3,000 charter seats a year.

"More than 30,000 Philadelphia school-age kids want to change their public school and are stuck on a waiting list," the Allegheny County Republican said in a statement Tuesday.

"Parents and students want a choice and the status quo is just unacceptable," he said. "Every child should have the opportunity for a successful education in an environment which suits their needs. This bill is aimed at reducing these waiting lists and increasing these opportunities."

The district has nearly 65,000 students at 86 charters in the city.

If approved in Harrisburg, the measure would take effect in the 2017-18 school year. It would add at least 15,000 students and boost charter enrollment to 80,000 by 2021-22.

Uri Monson, the district's chief financial officer, said the five-year financial plan the district presented last year already projected annual growth of charter enrollment of between 2,700 and 3,000.

"We've had a pretty steady growth rate," he said.

Monson said the district was monitoring Turzai's proposal but had not taken a position on it.

According to the district, more than 7,200 seats have been added at existing charter schools since 2012. In addition, 14 new charters have opened that added more than 7,400 slots.

And last month, the School Reform Commission added 369 spots at the Folk-Arts Cultural Treasures Charter School just north of Chinatown. It also authorized the KIPP Parkside Charter School to  open in West Philadelphia in 2019 and ultimately grow to 860 students.

The district's current $2.8 billion budget includes $875 million for charters, including transportation.

The five-year plan projects that charter costs will reach $1 billion in the fiscal year that ends June 30, 2019. The plan also shows that — without new sources of revenue — the district will face a $64.5 million deficit that year.

Monson pointed out that while some charter schools have waiting lists, others have space. He said there were 1,700 available seats across the city.

"If kids aren't going to those schools, we're not paying for them," Monson said.

Based on a formula in state law, the district is paying charters $8,487 per student this year, $25,624 for each in special education.

Turzai's bill, which has been referred to the House Education Committee, also would mandate that the SRC add an equivalent number of seats at another school if a charter loses its operating agreement or closes.

In addition, the bill  calls for the Pittsburgh public schools to add 500 more seats in charter schools each year. A spokeswoman for the Pittsburgh schools said 4,200 students in that district attend 36 charters. Eleven of the schools are in Pittsburgh.

Monson said Turzai has long been a charter-school advocate.

"He's been clear about how he feels about this for years," Monson said. "This is not a surprise."

In fact, Turzai backed inserting a charter-school provision into a law enacted in 2014 that authorizes the city to impose a $2-a-pack tax on cigarettes to provide money for schools.

The language required the SRC to consider applications for new charter schools each fall and said rejected applicants could appeal to the state Charter Appeal Board.

Jonathan Cetel, executive director of PennCAN, said his organization, which backs school choice, supports legislation that addresses the needs of families on charter waiting lists in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

He said families were desperate for high-quality public school options and he hoped Turzai's measure would "create an environment where the best charter schools in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia will be able to expand."

Cetel pointed out that the bill would not restrict the SRC or the Pittsburgh school board from "holding charter schools accountable for student outcomes and revoking charters from schools that are failing to serve students."

In fact, Cetel said PennCAN hopes that requiring a mandatory minimum of new seats would provide incentives for Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to move more aggressively to close poorly performing charters so effective ones can expand.