Saying that thousands of children are being denied quality educational opportunities, about 200 students, parents, and charter proponents rallied outside School District headquarters Monday demanding that the School Reform Commission grant the expansion requests of at least 20 charter schools.

"Our children are begging for opportunities. Let them get in!" said Naomi Booker, the CEO of Global Leadership Academy Charter in West Philadelphia and the president of Philadelphia Charters for Excellence.

But district officials said a vote on the charters’ requests, which had been tentatively scheduled for this Thursday, has been postponed indefinitely.

District spokesperson Fernando Gallard hinted that getting SRC approval for any charter expansion could prove difficult given the district’s precarious budget situation.

"As the district moves forward in making financial decisions for traditional and charter public schools, it will be guided by the financial realities it currently faces," Gallard said.

The district is currently projecting a shortfall of at least $242 million for next school year. Officials recently announced a plan to seek more money from the city and state as well as deep concessions from teachers in order to plug the gap.

Adding thousands of new charter seats would likely send the deficit number skyrocketing.

The way the Pennsylvania system for funding charters works, the school district makes a per pupil payment for every Philadelphia student enrolled in a charter. But the amount the district pays averages out to about $7,000 more per child, per year than it can save when those students come off its own rolls.

In response to the district’s financial crisis, the advocacy group Public Citizens for Children and Youth reiterated its call for "no blank check" on charter expansions and issued a set of recommendations it hopes will guide the SRC’s charter renewal process.

PCCY executive director Donna Cooper also said that one charter school, Imani Education Circle, "doesn’t meet the bar" for renewal and should be considered for closure due to poor academic performance.

Seat requests adding up

Charter schools in Pennsylvania are funded with taxpayer dollars, but managed by independent operators.

In Philadelphia, the School Reform Commission holds the sole authority to grant a new charter and to renew, or revoke, an existing charter.

This year, 16 city charters are up for renewal. Fourteen of those schools are seeking to add students.

Seven of the 11 charters eligible for mid-term modifications are seeking to grow, too.

Also pending are the renewal and expansion requests of five Philadelphia charters that the SRC declined to consider last spring.

To date, district officials have declined to release a comprehensive summary of the pending charter expansion requests.

Information provided by individual charters indicates that at least 6,000 new seats — and likely far more — have been requested:

  • Mathematics, Science & Technology (MaST) - 2,450 students
  • Young Scholars – 1,199 students
  • KIPP Philadelphia – roughly 900 students
  • ASPIRA of PA (Antonia Pantoja and Eugenio Maria de Hostos charters) – more than 600 students
  • Discovery – 400 students
  • Mastery – Hardy Williams – 330 students
  • Russell Byers – 245 students

Laurada Byers, the founder of Russell Byers Charter in Center City, said her school is seeking the extra seats in order to add a 7th and 8th grade.

The uncertainty over what will happen, said Byers, is making it difficult to obtain the financing that would make her school’s planned building expansion possible.

"We’re hoping the SRC gives us the seats we need to go to the bank to get the money to expand," she said.

Parent Kerinne Peacock was one of dozens of blue-clad, sign waving Russell Byers parents who turned out to support that sentiment.

"I don’t want her to go to a middle school," said Peacock of her daughter Gianna, currently a 3rd grader at Byers. "We want the [SRC] to say ‘yes’ so we don’t have to stress anymore."

Lincoln Isaac, meanwhile, said he and his wife came to Monday’s rally because their daughter is on the kindergarten waiting list at another popular charter.

"We didn’t win the [enrollment] lottery at KIPP," Isaac said. "But we’re charter schools all the way."

Organizers of the rally said more than 30,000 Philadelphia students are currently on charter school waiting lists.

That figure, provided by the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, is based on adding up the self-reported numbers in charters’ annual reports. It does not account for instances where the same student is on the waiting lists of more than one school.

New recommendations

Despite her calls for the SRC to draw a hard line on charter expansion, Cooper of PCCY said her group’s stance isn’t anti-charter.

"There are charters who are outperforming the district with even higher concentrations of kids who are challenged," said Cooper. "They deserve kudos, and we think they should be renewed."

But Cooper said a review of publicly available data by her staff also found that:

  • Imani Education Circle, a K-8 charter in Germantown, has standardized test scores indicating it may be "unable to offer its students the educational opportunity promised by the charter operator."
  • Two charters up for renewal — Mathematics, Civics, and Sciences and Universal Institute — serve far fewer students with special needs than the typical district-managed school
  • Thirteen charters up for renewal serve far fewer students who are English language learners than the typical district-managed school.

"We think the charters who are asking for renewal … ought to be expected to have a population that’s consistent with the district’s student population," said Cooper.

Among the ten recommendations released by PCCY is a call for the SRC to "establish equity enrollment targets" for all charters.

Cooper also said the district shouldn’t expand any charters until it has the money to also expand high quality traditional public schools. She pointed to the example of Penn Alexander elementary, which recently had to turn away parents from its surrounding neighborhood because it didn’t have the space.

"We don’t have a printing press for cash," said Cooper. "So we need to…look at the state and say, 'restore the cuts that were made, and then we can turn around and have this discussion about expansion and more quality seats.'"

This story was updated to provide more information from PCCY on its stand on renewing the charter for Imani Education Circle.  It was reported through a partnership in education coverage between WHYY/NewsWorks and the Public School Notebook.