The Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP) announced Thursday that it will give $3.4 million to charter school operators KIPP Philadelphia and Scholar Academies so they can expand by a combined 1,500 students.

The Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP) announced Thursday that it will give $3.4 million to charter school operators KIPP Philadelphia and Scholar Academies so they can expand by a combined 1,500 students.The moves could mean as much as $10 million a year in unplanned expenses for the struggling Philadelphia School District.

The push to grow KIPP also comes just eight months after the School Reform Commission, citing concerns about academics and cost, mostly denied requests made by KIPP to expand its existing schools in North and West Philadelphia.

PSP executive director Mark Gleason touted Thursday's announcement as another milestone in his group's push to increase the number of good school options available to Philadelphia parents.

"We're trying to support the creation, expansion, or turnaround of 35,000 seats around the city," Gleason said. "These grants will help thousands more students in Philadelphia have access to a high-quality school and, ultimately, to college."

But critics, still smarting over the SRC's decision just last week to close, merge, or relocate 28 of the city's traditional public schools, continued to question PSP's growing influence on efforts to reshape the city's educational system.

"There is great concern about PSP's role and whose interests they're representing," said Helen Gym of Parents United for Public Education.

"From our vantage point, [Thursday's announcement] is about ideology, favoritism, and circumventing public process."

An investment, with a cost

The School Reform Commission has not yet approved the charter school growth that PSP's new investments are intended to spur.

"The District has not made any recommendations at this point regarding further expansions of charter schools," said District spokesman Fernando Gallard. "That includes any expansion of charter schools being managed by KIPP and Scholar Academies."

Any such expansion could prove expensive. District officials estimate that each "new seat" in a regular charter school costs the city's traditional public school system $7,000 per student, per year. Converting traditional public schools to charters is estimated to cost the district roughly $1,000 per student, per year.

PSP's Gleason said Thursday's grant awards would be tied to SRC approval of forthcoming expansion efforts by KIPP and Scholar Academies. It's unclear what would happen if that approval is not granted.

"Absolutely, the hope is that the SRC works closely with providers who are already serving lots of students in this city, and doing a good job of it, to find a responsible way for them to expand their operation," Gleason said.

High-quality seats?

Thursday's announcement is just the latest from the Philadelphia School Partnership.

Founded in 2010, the influential nonprofit organization is dedicated to increasing the number of "high-quality" seats in Philadelphia schools. To date, the group has distributed over $13 million from its "Great Schools Fund," mostly to charters and Catholic schools.

Gleason said PSP was drawn to KIPP and Scholar Academies because both have "strong track records preparing students for high school and college" and both are "well-positioned to grow over the next three to five years."

Parent demand for the schools is also strong, he said.

Enrollment at Frederick Douglass Elementary School in North Philadelphia has grown from 518 students to 755 students since it was taken over by Scholar Academies in 2010. More than 90 percent of public school families from Douglass' attendance zone now send their children to the school. Test scores have also shown marked increases.

Scholar Academies also operates a regular charter school in North Philadelphia and will compete to manage one of the three additional District schools designated last month for conversion to a charter as part of the District's Renaissance turnaround initiative.

The group will receive $1.8 million from PSP to support efforts to enroll between 600 and 900 new students in the coming years.

"We are grateful for PSP's support of Scholar Academies' continued commitment to turning around Philadelphia's lowest-performing schools," said Lars Beck, CEO of Scholar Academies, in a statement.

Gleason from PSP also praised the performance of KIPP Philadelphia, which operates a total of four schools under two different charter agreements with the District.

"We've done a very thorough analysis," Gleason said. "We are convinced that they have a really good academic program, and we'd like to see them be able to expand."

Just last June, however, Philadelphia's SRC mostly denied an expansion effort by KIPP, issuing only 121 of the 1,115 new seats sought by two of the group's existing schools.

KIPP-West Philadelphia, for example, was seeking to grow by 545 students, mostly by adding a new elementary school. But the SRC awarded the school just 15 new seats.

Marc Mannella, the CEO of KIPP Philadelphia, said he believed that decision was faulty because it was based largely on KIPP-West's poor School Performance Index (SPI) score. The District has since suspended use of SPI, citing flaws in the way schools' scores were calculated.

Hoping to create a K-12 feeder pattern, KIPP-North also sought to add hundreds of seats last year in new elementary and high school grades. But because the schools' charter was not up for renewal, the SRC deferred most of those seat requests until this year.

Now, KIPP will receive $1.6 million from PSP to support a renewed expansion push.
The grant calls for KIPP to enroll between 700 and 800 new students, some of which would come through the creation of a new elementary school in West Philadelphia.

"Parents want us to do more, and we're ready to do more," Mannella said.

Pressure on the SRC

For Gym of Parents United, Thursday's announcement amounts to an ideologically driven end run around of the SRC.

Fresh off of "cheerleading" the District's controversial school-closings push, said Gym, the Philadelphia School Partnership is now "circumventing public process and District oversight to independently help finance a massive expansion of charter schools."

"I think there is a clear intent here to influence and drive the District's decision-making," she said.

Gleason agreed that his group is trying to influence the School Reform Commission, but said that PSP's investments do not amount to improper interference.

"We want the SRC to know we believe that these schools should be expanded. That's the extent of it," Gleason said. "We have no role in the decision-making process on the public agency side."

Regardless, the District and SRC will clearly be under significant pressure to grant forthcoming expansion requests.

In the wake of recent court decisions that Pennsylvania districts may not impose so-called "enrollment caps" on charter schools, several Philadelphia charters have added more students than called for in their agreements with the District, then gone directly to the state for reimbursement. Over the last 18 months, that has cost the District at least $8.7 million.

Mannella said KIPP would consider doing the same if the SRC does not grant its request to add students and grades to complete the K-12 feeder patterns for which it has been approved.

"We have students in second grade and 11th grade in our existing schools who we made promises to, and we need to make sure we fulfill those promises," he said.

Still, said Mannella, he's hopeful that his group can reach an understanding with the SRC.

"There's an overwhelming parent demand to send their children to charters, and specifically to KIPP schools," he said.
"Hopefully, they're going to come out in a way that supports the requests and the desire of the students and families of our city."

This story was reported through a partnership in education coverage between WHYY/NewsWorks and the Public School Notebook.

Disclosure: Helen Gym is a member of the Notebook leadership board, but her opinions expressed in this story are not positions of the Notebook leadership board.