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DN Editorial: Charter Schools Office rightly exercising its power

District’s Charter Schools Office rightly holding schools to higher standards

IMAGINE A FEW students whose year-end report cards show so many failing grades that the teacher recommends that they not graduate. Now suppose the principal intervened and said, "Not so fast, let's give them another chance."

This would not be good for the students, or for teachers, or for the school system, and it would be bad for education overall.

In a way, that's what happened last week during the process of renewing a handful of charter schools, during a meeting of the School Reform Commission. The district's Charter Schools Office recommended nonrenewals for four schools; Vare and Audenreid, run by Kenny Gamble's Universal Companies, and Stetson and Olney High School, run by Aspira.

The SRC essentially passed on voting to support these nonrenewals, and gave Aspira a week to prove it can fix the many financial and governance problems that were brought to light in the charter office's renewal reports, which evaluates schools on academic success, organizational viability, and financial health and sustainability.

The day before the SRC meeting, City Controller Alan Butkovitz released a separate report questioning many of the operational and financial procedures of both Universal and Aspira. Universal operates seven charters; Aspira runs four plus a cyber charter. The controller's report cited numerous problems, including lack of arm's length distance on financial decisions made by the operators, including loan guarantees.

In cases where companies operate many charter schools, boards are supposed to be separate for each school, and money for operating charters must also be dedicated to students, not for transactions of the parent company. The controller's report raised questions on both. Like this editorial page, the controller has consistently called for reforms in the original charter law.

Like many things in Pennsylvania, charter education has been like the Wild West: The state Department of Education keeps its distance, and until recently, the School District had a skeleton staff to oversee charters, despite the fact that 30 percent of the city's students are in charters.

The intent of the original law was to create schools that would operate autonomously, and be allowed to innovate and establish educational best practices. While that happens in some charters, the city has seen too many charters failing both students and taxpayers.

That's why last week's SRC actions aren't as disturbing to us as SRC member Bill Green's complaint that different standards are being used to judge charter schools against district schools. But those standards are exactly the point: We give taxpayer dollars to an educational sector that has promised to do better than the traditional public schools. And for Renaissance Schools - a special category of charters that turn neighborhood schools over to charter operators - expectations are for accelerated improvement.

Granted, historically, charters haven't been pressed on those higher standards. But a more professional district charter office now seems to be flexing that muscle.

When you use a muscle you haven't used, it's going to hurt. But like they say at the gym, no pain, no gain. And the city's students are long overdue for gain.