Friday, April 13, 2018

Philadelphia's Effort to Exercise Minimal Oversight of Charters Draws Lawsuit; State and District Ought to Go Much Further

Philadelphia has taken some baby-steps to reign in charter schools.  Any such step, regardless of its merits, is sure to be met with stiff resistance from the charter industry.  According to local reports, "A nonprofit that supports charter schools filed suit Thursday against the Philadelphia School District, saying the school system’s new policy unfairly and illegally restricts charter-school operations."  It is challenging a policy that it says "will require charters to seek approval from the district for virtually all changes to their curriculum and imposes illegal enrollment caps."   Rather than a “neutral arbiter," the district is trying  “to micromanage their operations,” said Stephen DeMaura, executive director of Excellent Schools PA. He further adds, “we believe the main purpose is to restrict the operations and growth of charter schools, not improve the outcomes of children.”

Lest the average citizen take DeMaura or my word for it, looking at what the Commission actual did is the best thing to do.  The updated policy states:

Charters generally exist for a defined term of five years. During that charter term, changes in regulations, operation, ideology, or business need may cause a charter school to seek a formal amendment. The CSO will work with all charter schools expressing interest in a charter amendment, consistent with this policy, to meet the needs of the charter school and its students. Material charter amendments submitted during the charter term require authorization by SRC resolution and signed agreement. Such authorized or approved amendments become effective once a written amendment to the charter has been duly executed by the School District and the charter school. The CSO shall develop administrative procedures describing the application requirements and evaluation process to be followed in reviewing each type of Material charter amendment request consistent with this policy.

In short, in the normal course of seeking renewal of its charter, a charter school should let the district know of any material amendments to its operating plan.  The district will then evaluate those amendments.  In more everyday terms, the state and the charter have five year contracts.  When those contracts are up, let's talk about any new terms the charter wants to add.  Doesn't sound all that radical, but the devil is always in the detail.  What is a "material" change?  The updated policy says material amendments are:

Changes to charter agreements that fundamentally affect a charter school’s mission, governance, organizational structure, location or facility, educational plan or the CSO’s ability to effectively monitor charter school operations and quality. Material charter amendments include:

1. Enrollment expansion of 10% or fewer of the current maximum authorized enrollment or 100 seats, whichever is less (only qualified applicants as defined by eligibility criteria of this policy may be considered for enrollment expansions under this policy);
2. Change to grade levels served;
3. Significant change to mission, or fundamental change to educational plan;
4. Name change of Renaissance charter schools due to business-need or legal requirement ;
5. Change in building location or addition of new facility due to business-need, unavailability of current facility and/or emergency; and
6. Change in CMO [charter management organization].

Those don't sound that intrusive to me.  I have argued that if charter expansion is to occur consistent with state constitutional obligations, states must exercise--or authorize districts to exercise--far more oversight than this. Relying on basic state constitutional principles, I explain here that:

First, states cannot preference private choice programs over public education. This conclusion flows from the fact that most state constitutions mandate public education as a first-order right for their citizens. Second, choice programs cannot have the practical effect of impeding educational opportunities in public schools. Education clauses in state constitutions obligate states to provide adequate and equitable public schools. Any state policies that deny students those opportunities are unconstitutional. Choice policies that, for instance, reduce public funding for education, stratify opportunities, or intensify segregation fall in that category.

Preventing this problems requires data-driven analysis of funding, enrollments, demographics, and educational opportunity.  Philadelphia might be creeping into the charters' domain more than they have in the past, but they have far more to go.

--on Twitter: Ed Law Prof Blog @DerekWBlack

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