Philadelphia's charter-school movement got a reprieve of sorts yesterday when the School Reform Commission voted 5-0 to conditionally approve seven more of the publicly funded, independent schools to open in the 2009-10 school year.
At last week's non-voting reform commission meeting, Cathy Balsley, director of the district's Office of Charter Schools, recommended that officials reject all 15 applications that sought to open charters this fall, due to financial and other reasons.
Balsley proposed instead that the commissioners invite the charter applicants and other interested groups to submit proposals to convert existing failing schools into charter schools in 2009.
The five commissioners gave no indication last week that they would not follow the recommendation.
But yesterday, they presented and approved a plan of their own. Although eight applications were denied primarily due to a lack of funds - meaning their backers could get an opportunity to reform existing schools as Balsley proposed - seven applications got the green light.
Those applications were deemed strongest - with sound educational plans, clear mission statements and solid business plans, said Sandra Dungee Glenn, SRC chairwoman.
In addition, she said, the seven applications meshed with district priorities, such as planning to locate where schools are most needed and offering academic programs that give high school students more options.
But none will open in fall 2009 if the district lacks the funding to support them, the reform commission stressed.
"I don't love it, but I think it's got us moving in the right direction," SRC member Heidi Ramirez said of the commission's decision.
SRC member James Gallagher said the decision to approve some applications and not others was "painful." He suggested to those who had submitted applications to visit Harrisburg to lobby members of the General Assembly to increase funding for charter schools.
"The bottom line is, if you don't have money to pay for something, you don't get it," he said. "If there's no cookies in the cookie jar, you don't get any cookies . . . That's pretty harsh."
Although five of the seven approved schools will enroll high-school students, KIPP West Philadelphia Preparatory Charter School will enroll grades fifth through eighth, and Franklin Towne Charter School will enroll kindergarten-through-eighth- grade students.
The backers of KIPP and Franklin Towne each have a successful charter in operation, which helped their latest applications win approval, Dungee Glenn said.
Among the high schools are Arise Academy Charter School, which would be the nation's first public high school designed for youth in foster care, and the Eastern University Charter School, which would offer students the chance to take college courses.
Before yesterday's vote, backers of the applications pleaded with the reform commission to not follow last week's recommendation, but to instead approve their schools to open this fall.
Even with the one-year delay and the conditional approval, several of those applicants expressed joy following the meeting.
"I don't want to look for any controversy. I think the fact that they had the courage to stand up and to do this today was a positive thing," said Jill Welsh-Davis, chairwoman of the Arise Academy Charter School and an official with the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition, which submitted the application.
"We all know what the fiscal situation with the district is," said Vivian Nix Early, dean of the Campolo School for Social Change at Eastern University, which submitted the Eastern University Charter application.
"The first hurdle was to actually get a charter which allows us to have that piece of paper in hand to begin to leverage something like the Gates funds," she said, referring to a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The district approved its first four charter schools to open in September 1997. Today there are 61 schools serving more than 30,000 students.
In September two more previously approved charters will open. *