Philly board hires firm to investigate racial bias in charter school authorizations

Board of Education meeting inside the meeting hall of the School District of Philadelphia’s headquarters. Participants are socially distanced and the foreground shows a lot of empty carpeted area.
Philadelphia’s Board of Education announced Wednesday that it has hired a firm to investigate racial bias in charter school authorizations. (Dale Mezzacappa / Chalkbeat)

Months after the Philadelphia school board vowed to look into allegations that Black-led charter schools have been targeted for closure, the board announced Wednesday that it’s hiring a local firm to investigate racial bias in how charter schools are authorized.

The board has tapped Ballard Spahr LLP, a Philadelphia-based law firm to lead the investigation. The firm, which is working for free, might hire a third-party consultant with experience in racial equity analyses to assist in the investigation. If it does, the school district will pay for the consultant. 

The results of the investigation are expected in the fall, according to the board.

“The board takes allegations of racial bias seriously, and we want everyone to know that we are looking transparently at what we do in order to continuously improve our work on behalf of Philadelphia’s students,” Board of Education President Joyce Wilkerson said in a statement. “We also want our minority founded and led schools to know that we recognize the value their voices bring to the table as we continue to strengthen charter authorizing practices.”

The announcement comes after the school board delayed a vote last month on whether to close Universal Audenried Promise Neighborhood Partnership Charter School, a popular Black-led charter school in South Philadelphia. That vote now is scheduled for Dec. 9.

At last month’s meeting, the board voted 7-1 to push back the vote. The dissenting vote was from Mallory Fix Lopez.

At the same meeting, the board voted unanimously to approve the renewal application for Universal Vare Promise Neighborhood Partnership Charter School in South Philadelphia, which is part of the same charter network. 

Universal spokesperson Devon Allen said the school has no comment about the upcoming vote.

Past revocations of Black-led charters have drawn criticism from the African American Charter Schools Coalition, a group of 20 schools, which has raised concerns about the treatment of schools with Black leadership. The coalition called for an overhaul of the district’s charter office, demanding fairness, transparency, and equity when it comes to evaluation, oversight and expansion of charter schools.

City Council member Isaiah Thomas criticized the board’s presentation in the spring saying “it was like a gloomy cloud came over when Black charters came up” with talks about accountability reports and “making sure you bring the hammer down” when the board’s expectations are not met.

Philadelphia has more than 80 charter schools, with a total enrollment of more than 75,000 students, or about a third of those enrolled in the city’s publicly funded schools. The school district, through its charter schools office, is the sole authorizer. According to the coalition, Black and Latino charter leaders operate 19% of the charters in Philadelphia, but account for 87% of those recommended for closure or nonrenewal over the past several years.

The district says that it evaluates charter schools based on academic, operational, and financial measures and that charters recommended for closure or nonrenewal often have not met state standards for student proficiency in reading and math, which are mostly measured by standardized test scores. Graduation rates are also considered for high schools.

In May, members of the board pledged to address the allegations made by the coalition and hire an independent investigator.

In the case of Audenried, charter officials are discussing provisions under a “surrender clause,” meaning the school must meet certain conditions for renewal or it will forfeit the school’s charter. According to the school board, if Audenried fails to comply with two of the conditions for renewal under the surrender, then board may vote for closure by June 30.

​​According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, if a charter agreement is revoked, the charter is dissolved. Students attending a dissolved charter school are then able to apply to another school in their district, regardless of application deadlines. Charters, however, have a right to appeal to the Pennsylvania Charter Appeal Board before being dissolved.

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