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Editorial: Charter Schools

One bad apple

The Philadelphia School Reform Commission is considering yet another delay in the approval of 15 pending charter school applications. The latest delay is driven by the district's budget deficit, the arrival of a new chief executive, and the explosion of charter schools in the city.

Oh, and one other big concern likely behind the pause: the recent scandal involving cronyism and spending abuses at a charter school in the Northeast.

The concerns, while valid, don't apply to the pending applications and shouldn't be used as an excuse to further delay review of the proposed charter schools.

The commission has already delayed approval of 11 of the 15 proposed charters. Any further delay could unfairly jeopardize the funding and viability of the proposed schools. The commission should evaluate the applications on the individual merits and in a timely fashion.

Cathy Balsley, head of the district's charter school office, says one good option is to ask the charter applicants to take over some of the city's failing schools.

Asking would-be charter schools to restructure historically poor-performing city schools should be explored.

But going forward, the state and the school district need to take a broader look at the approval and oversight of charter schools. For starters, there needs to be better scrutiny of each school's spending.

The Philadelphia School District provides more than $279 million in taxpayers' money to the 61 existing charter schools, which have a combined enrollment of 30,000.

The charter schools, in turn, need to be more forthcoming of salaries, contracts and other expenditures of the public dollars they receive. The charters can't take the tax dollars and then operate like a private school.

Exhibit A is the debacle at the Philadelphia Academy Charter School in the Northeast.

Inquirer reporter Martha Woodall has detailed allegations of financial impropriety, nepotism, and conflicts of interest surrounding the founder and executives at the school.

The School Reform Commission has since delayed renewing the school's operating charter, pending the outcome of an investigation.

However, the trouble surrounding the school doesn't mean the district should stop approving charter schools. But it does indicate potential trouble.

One option is for the state Department of Education to play a bigger role in overseeing the charter schools rather than the school district.

Having the district in charge creates an inherent conflict since the charters in effect compete against the public schools.

The school district has embraced the charter movement. The troubles at one school shouldn't derail the benefits of charters, but instead be used to strengthen how the schools operate.