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Charters: Too many, too fast?

The case for more deliberation in approvals

CHARTER SCHOOLS win popularity contests with parents by offering an educational choice for their children, even if some of them don't perform much differently than regular district schools.

But we wish that the School Reform Commission - whose job it is to objectively measure charters' value and expand their reach strategically - would be more cautious in its enthusiasm for charters, at least until better oversight measures are established.

Consider: Two weeks ago, the School District of Philadelphia's Office of Charter Education recommended the SRC hold off approving any more charter schools. The office cited a few factors in this request: Charter schools had grown fast and furious for the past few years - in nine years, 63 schools have opened to educate 30,000 students - and the district could use some time to be more deliberative and strategic about charter choices.

Also, new chief executive officer Arlene Ackerman is due to start, and the charter office said she would probably want a say in charter growth.

Finally, and not incidentally, the district is nearly $40 million in debt, with no money budgeted for new charters for the next five years.

These seemed reasonable and even wise reasons for delaying adding to the 33,000 students being educated by charter schools.

So why did the SRC last week find it important to provide conditional approval for seven out of 15 applicants? Those new schools won't open until 2009, and then only if the district finds money.

We find it curious that the SRC would ignore the findings of the school district's charter office, which not only helps administer the charters but could be presumed to be expert in how fast the district should add them.

Also, the conditional approvals come on the heels of some troubling investigations into a number of charter schools.

The Philadelphia Academy Charter School is being investigated for the high salaries of its operators, possible fiscal mismanagement and conflicts of interest. And last week, another investigation was announced to establish why a CEO of two charters is drawing a salary of $331,000.

The SRC says charters are a healthy part of the district's mix of school options. It says because charters are nimble, their roles will expand, especially with high schools and low-achieving schools. They will help ease school overcrowding more efficiently than building new schools. But charter school oversight and accountability is still a big issue. An SRC task force made up primarily of charter school advocates has yet to deliver on a promised report, but in the coming weeks, that report will offer ways for the district to improve oversight and communication with city charters.

So why couldn't the SRC wait, at least until this report provided guidelines for the district to create the right kind of oversight and accountability?

Still unresolved - and we suspect it will be for a while - is what to do about the district's 70 low-achieving or Corrective Action II schools.

The charter school office suggested that the worse schools be taken over by charters with a solid track record, but the SRC has slowed its efforts to address that issue until the new CEO arrives.

The charters have an important role to play in the district. But in light of uncertain funding, instead of rushing to add to their already rapid growth, the SRC should set an example for students, by doing their homework and studying these schools harder. *