Board of Education set to vote on three charter renewals

Both the SRC and the Board of Education have voted to revoke ASPIRA's charters for Stetson and Olney. The issue has been tied up for years. The third charter vote includes conditions, which may not be enforceable.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Thursday’s meeting of the Board of Education will feature renewal votes for three struggling charter schools, but how much impact the board’s decisions will have on those schools is unclear.

Two of the charters up for non-renewal are for Stetson Middle School and Olney High, which are run by the nonprofit ASPIRA of North Philadelphia. The board is likely to vote to revoke those embattled schools’ charters, which would mark the second time the District’s governing body has tried to end ASPIRA’s management at the two converted District schools.

But because of Pennsylvania’s lengthy charter appeals process and an ongoing lawsuit, the schools are not likely to close anytime soon.

A third charter, Mathematics, Civics & Sciences Charter School (MCSCS), appears poised for renewal after lengthy negotiations with the Charter Schools Office produced an agreement that it finds acceptable. District officials say they have a list of conditions for the new charter, but a recent Pennsylvania Charter Appeal Board decision may render such conditions unenforceable.

Long battle with ASPIRA

The vote on ASPIRA’s two Renaissance charters, Olney and Stetson, will be the latest salvo in the five-year battle between the nonprofit and the District.

ASPIRA was among the District’s first charter operators, and it became part of the Renaissance school turnaround program under Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. Through this program, the charter organizations agreed to run neighborhood schools, open to all catchment residents, in hopes of improving them dramatically.

But ASPIRA has been dogged for years by allegations of financial improprieties and poor academic performance. As early as 2014, the District told the operator it was on “thin ice,” and in the years that followed, numerous reports alleged a variety of financial misdeeds, including the practice of improperly shuffling cash among its various schools and the parent nonprofit.

In late 2017, the now-defunct School Reform Commission voted to revoke Stetson and Olney’s charters. A 2018 state audit blasted the nonprofit, alleging that it was operating a sprawling financial enterprise without meaningful oversight, cutting corners on administration, and turning what were supposed to be independent schools into cogs of the larger ASPIRA machine.

“Aspira Inc. is clearly calling all the financial shots at all five charter schools, without any input or oversight from the schools themselves,” said Auditor General Eugene DePasquale at the time. “This is not how charter schools are supposed to function under the current Charter School Law.”

The subsequent hearings for Stetson and Olney – required by law in the wake of the non-renewal vote – documented a long list of problems. Olney’s hearing cited “low proficiency rates on Keystone exams, poor School Performance Profile scores, failure to meet academic growth standards, failure to meet Annual Measureable Objectives, poor graduation rates, poor federal accountability designations, [and] failure to meet commitments in its charter.”

Stetson’s hearing noted that the school has “good reason to be proud of the substantial climate improvements it has made in the last nine years, but these improvements have not resulted in the ‘dramatic gains in student achievement’ that were expected,” wrote hearing officer Rudolph Garcia.

ASPIRA officials have consistently denied any wrongdoing over the years, while also promising to improve on financials and academics. The nonprofit has filed a lawsuit against the District, arguing that the “interminably long” renewal process is unfair and has hurt its finances. Its students and staff routinely appear at school board meetings to argue that their schools are caring and effective and that revoking the charters would undo the good ASPIRA has done.

“If [Olney] becomes public … there will be more fights and violence,” one student told the Board of Education in June.

If the board votes to revoke the ASPIRA charters, the schools won’t close anytime soon, because the charter-friendly appeal process can take years. As long as the schools are open, the District is committed to spending a total of about $40 million on them annually. Last year Stetson’s allotment was about $13 million for about 900 students, and Olney’s was about $27 million for almost 1,800 students.

If the charters are revoked, the two schools will revert to District management, which would be unprecedented in the history of the Renaissance program.

Unknown conditions for MCSCS

The third vote involves MCSCS, a K-12 charter of about 1,000 students that was founded by former District staffer Veronica Joyner. If the charter is renewed and enrollment stays about the same, the school will receive about $10 million a year for the next five years.

MCSCS has struggled academically. District assessments show it falling short among comparable District schools and charters in most academic and administrative areas. Its charter expired in 2018, and the school has been negotiating for its renewal ever since.

District officials say they’ve settled on a renewal plan which will include a host of “school-specific” conditions.

What those conditions are and how they could be enforced remains unknown. District officials say they will share details of the 19 conditions immediately before the board’s vote.

“The Charter Schools Office will make a presentation on the proposed charter renewal, including all 19 conditions, at the Action Meeting on Thursday,” said District spokesperson Imahni Moise.

That’s a common District practice that has long frustrated some observers, including Lisa Haver of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS). By keeping the details of renewal plans confidential until moments before the board votes on them, Haver said, the District prevents the public from weighing in on the specifics of a given school’s recovery plan.

“They vote in secret, even though they are sitting in the room, because the public does not know exactly what they are voting on,” said Haver.

District officials, when asked why the details of MCSCS’s renewal can’t be released sooner, say that the law requires that they keep “active” negotiations confidential.

“We are not able to release the terms as this is a quasi-judicial matter … currently actively being negotiated,” said Moise.

However, Moise did not offer an explanation for what prevents the District from sharing terms once a charter renewal negotiation is complete. Thursday’s agenda suggests that that is the case with MCSCS, noting that “the CSO has negotiated a five-year renewal, effective July 1, 2018, with 19 school-specific conditions.”

Deborah Klehr of the Education Law Center said that by keeping renewal conditions under wraps until just before key votes, allowing the public to scrutinize charters’ plans to correct known deficiencies.

“We are concerned about inequitable practices among charter schools, ranging from illegal refusal to enroll students with disabilities to failure to serve English learners,” said Klehr in a statement. “The school board authorizes charters in Philadelphia and is right to consider these factors in setting conditions for renewal. We encourage the school board to share this information about conditions so that the public has an opportunity to weigh in fully on charter renewals prior to a school board vote.”

However, any discussion of conditions may have been rendered moot by a recent decision at the state’s Charter Appeals Board involving a different charter operator, Franklin Towne Charter Schools.

Franklin Towne has had troubles of its own, involving both academics and administration, and District officials sought to modify the charter for its new 450-student middle school. However, Franklin Towne successfully defeated the District’s effort by invoking Pennsylvania charter law, arguing that the District lacks the authority to add conditions that “materially” tinker with the school’s charter.

A complete ruling from the appeals board is still forthcoming, but the possibility remains that the District’s ability to enforce conditions – already limited – will be further curtailed. That would be good news to many charter supporters who feel that the District has “kind of weaponized the whole condition thing,” as David Hardy of Excellent Schools PA recently put it.

In other charter-related news, Thursday’s board meeting will also include a vote on a $60,000 contract for a private firm that will assist in reviewing new charter applications, ensuring that they all get “a thorough and timely review.” SchoolWorksLLC, which specializes in curriculum review and “generalist evaluation,” will work under the direction of Charter School Office staff, potentially filling gaps left by some recent departures.

“The CSO will use this support in addition to their team’s review,” said Moise. “The CSO lost three staff members and are in the process of filling those roles.”