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DN Editorial: Oversightless

Palmer School troubles spotlight flaws in the current charter system.

LAST week, the school district announced that it was starting the process of revoking the charter for Walter Palmer Leadership & Learning Partners Charter School.

The six-page district memo detailed a litany of problems at the 1,300-student school, including low academic performance, unsound financial policies and actions, enrollment numbers that greatly exceed its charter and a host of other problems.

The school's students have failed to make adequate yearly progress for the past five years, and perform at the bottom 10 percent of Philadelphia schools. Palmer has a $2 million deficit, no working capital, has failed to complete at least one financial audit and charged the district $770,000 for students who did not attend the school.

The district memo is also a litany of the failures of the charter education system in this state. That includes a criminal lack of oversight from the state and conflicting laws that favor charter enrollment and gives the district some responsibility for charters without authority.

The Palmer school was at the heart of a battle between the district and the courts on the issue of charter enrollment. Palmer's charter allowed for 675, but in 2012 it had 900 students, yet a state court upheld the school's claim that the district can't cap enrollments. This is critical, because charter schools' budgets depend entirely on the number of students enrolled, and for every student enrolled, thousands of dollars are taken out of the district's budget for those students. The state no longer reimburses districts for that money.

This is bad enough, but it would be less so if there was actually oversight from the state to make sure that schools expanding beyond their charter were at least performing well. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. In fact, a year before the court decision, the state started to investigate Palmer on allegations of widespread test cheating; no report has been issued. The state's laxness basically means that charter operators, whatever their quality, can raise their enrollments and their budgets according to their whim, and nothing else. Meanwhile, Walter Palmer's annual report is nowhere to be found on the state education department's website. Neither is an explanation for its absence.

This is no way to run an effective education system - especially with millions of taxpayer dollars at stake.

Many parents are naturally upset about the revocation of Palmer's charter, and that's another issue that underscores the problem with many of the state's charters. Parents are motivated by many factors in deciding where to send their kids to school, and put safety high on the list. The promise of safety has contributed to the boom in charters around the city. But shouldn't academic performance be the first priority for everyone? And shouldn't the lack of it worry everyone?

That's clearly not the case for some elected officials who have spoken out against the revocation, including Curtis Jones and Jannie Blackwell. Theirs may be a politically expedient position, but it's not doing the children in failing school any favors.