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Amid a standoff with Philly schools, hundreds rally for charters

Tension between charters and traditional public schools is nothing new, but a rally that drew hundreds Tuesday brought it into sharp, public relief.

Global Leadership Academy Charter School student Kionna Biuens, 12, was one of hundreds who rallied for charter schools Tuesday. MICHELLE GUSTAFSON
Global Leadership Academy Charter School student Kionna Biuens, 12, was one of hundreds who rallied for charter schools Tuesday. MICHELLE GUSTAFSONRead moreMICHELLE GUSTAFSON

Amid an ongoing standoff with the Philadelphia School District, hundreds of people rallied for Philadelphia charter schools at City Hall on Tuesday.

For nearly two years, some charter schools have refused to sign their operating agreements, saying the terms demanded by the district's charter school office threaten "our existence and our autonomy," said Scott Gordon, CEO of Mastery Charter Schools, the city's largest charter network.

Tension between charters and traditional public schools is nothing new, but Tuesday brought the feud over accountability and perceived overreach into sharp public relief.

Flanked by several City Council members, parents, students and officials from 15 charter networks and schools called on the School District to soften its stance on charter renewals. They also urged Mayor Kenney to consider charter interests as he prepares to form a new school board.

"We are for charter schools," Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell told a crowd so large it spilled out of the Mayor's Reception Room into an overflow space. "We know how the parents in the community feel about them — they love them, and they feel they are safe there. They deserve their bite of the apple, too."

Seventeen charters have refused to sign their renewal agreements, saying the district wants them to agree to permit the school system to change policies at any time for any reason, to allow it to take away payments with no recourse. They also object to what they say are unfair academic standards — comparing charters not to peer schools but a group of schools that includes magnet schools.

School officials say those are incorrect characterizations: that they are only requiring charters be subject to the same school board policy changes all public schools must adhere to. They also note that for the purposes of renewal decisions, charters are compared only to neighborhood nonselective schools.

Lee Whack, a spokesman for the school system, said the charter school office's goal is to make sure all Philadelphia schoolchildren are served equitably.

"We will continue to work directly with every charter school to ensure they are providing the highest possible quality options for students and families," Whack said in a statement. "The standards we want are aligned to national standards and best practices for accountability and quality charter school authorizing, and similar to what these charter schools agreed to and signed in prior years."

For parent Crystal Morris, showing up at City Hall was crucial. She represented many parents in the city who choose charters — people who feel that their local traditional public schools just aren't options.

Morris' older son graduated from Boys Latin of Philadelphia Charter School in 2016, and her younger son is still a student there. The family's neighborhood high school is Overbrook, where just 3 percent of students scored proficient on state math exams and 53 percent of students graduated on time. Morris has sat outside of the school when classes dismiss, watching police try to keep order.

"Going there isn't even a discussion," Morris said. "That's not the appropriate place for him. Who deserves to go to a substandard school? Certainly not my children, or the children of anybody I know."

Pennsylvania's charter structure sets up an odd situation: Local school boards are charged with authorizing and regulating the charter schools that take students — and resources — away from traditional school systems. But those who rail against charters as harming public schools often have other choices for their children — magnet schools, private schools, even suburban schools, said Larry Jones, CEO of Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School in Southwest Philadelphia.

"My zip code and, if we're going to be real, my color should not be a barrier to the choice that I have," Jones said.

Parents and charter officials also emphasized they'll be watching as the new school board is constituted to see if the nine people chosen have their interests at heart.

Toya Algarin, a board member and parent at KIPP Philadelphia Charter School, sent her son from Germantown to West Philadelphia, for a chance at a charter school education, and she said it has made all the difference. She wants board members who will make sure schools like KIPP continue to exist — and expand.

"It's important," Algarin said, "that all voices have a seat at the table."