A playground as seen through a fence outside Universal Daroff Charter School
The playground at Universal Daroff Charter School, which closed just before the 2022-23 academic year began. (Aubri Juhasz/WHYY)

At its action meeting this Thursday, the Philadelphia Board of Education will vote on whether to approve 5-year renewals for up to 19 charter schools. 

Unlike other local districts, Philly’s school board holds no public hearing to review the performance of charters before deciding whether it’s beneficial to students and the community to fund them for another five years. Rarely does the board vote for non-renewal. 

The projected cost of renewing all 19 schools up for a vote, based on the district’s 2022 budget, is more than $470 million over the next five years. Of the 14 charters the board has already indicated it will renew, eight failed to meet academic standards. Instead, their rating falls in the Charter Schools Office’s middle category, “approaches standards,” which allows schools that score above 45% to squeak by.

In places other than charterworld, below 70% is considered a failing grade. 

Charter schools were sold as the answer to all that was wrong with education. The market-driven, union-free schools that came on the scene over 20 years ago would not only educate children better than public schools, their wealthy backers proclaimed,  they would actually help to rid the community of the plagues of poverty and violence.  But for all of their lofty promises, charter investors made sure to build in safeguards, in both the charter laws and the district’s renewal policies, to protect operators whose schools failed to live up to them. 

Math Civics Science (MCS) in Spring Garden is one of the charters in this year’s renewal cohort. It was in the news recently for barring one of its seniors from attending school, prom, and graduation after he survived an assault in which he was shot 10 times. The DA’s office determined the student was a “purely innocent victim”, but MCS administration decided the student was a risk to others and barred him from all senior activities. They reportedly didn’t even read his name at graduation. 

This is not the first time MCS has been exposed for maltreatment of its own students. Earlier this year, the school expelled a student who got into a fight without providing her the legally required due process. And in 2019 the Education Law Center sued the school for rescinding its acceptance of a 6-year old after learning of her disability; MCS claimed it could provide neither the class nor the teacher to meet the child’s special needs. 

Math Science Civics was renewed in 2013 and again in 2018 despite its failure to meet academic, organizational, and financial standards both times. Even after all of these transgressions, it is more than likely that the school will be granted another five years. The community may not benefit from that ruling, but the school’s CAO, who was paid over $350,000 in 2020, certainly would. 

Bloated administrative compensation has been a problem throughout the years of charter expansion in Philadelphia. Recent tax records show that at least three of the city charter’s CEOs make more for operating one to three schools than Superintendent Tony Watlington does for overseeing the entire district of 217 schools. 

It’s one reason this is the most expensive way to run a district: one public sector with one administration, and 87 charter schools that operate with their own separate — and highly paid — administrations. 

Franklin Towne Charter High School made the news earlier this year when a longtime administrator blew the whistle on the school’s rigged lottery system. The school’s demographic data had shown for years that the enrollment processed heavily favored white applicants. The school’s ongoing discriminatory practices did not stop the district from renewing the charter both in 2013 and in 2019. As of this week, the board has indicated its intention to begin the process of non-renewal. 

Even in the rare cases when the board does move toward a non-renewal, the state’s charter law provides another safeguard for the charter operators by mandating a long and expensive legal process.  

Pa. Rep. Joe Ciresi has introduced legislation,  endorsed by most of the state’s school boards, that would effect long overdue charter reform  Until that legislation passes, Philadelphia’s Board of Education must make the interests of students and families their priority, not those of charter operators and investors.

Lisa Haver is a retired Philadelphia teacher. She is co-founder and coordinator of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, a grassroots advocacy organization.