In Philadelphia, Irony has collided with Karma, casing an explosion of hilariously tragic tears.
First, some history. Philadelphia schools have suffered from financial and political issues (PA's school funding system is messed up, but we'll save that for another day), as well as questions about how well it was actually teaching children. In the late 1990s this resulted in some lawsuits against the state and a school superintendent (David Hornbeck) who decided to play chicken with the legislature.
"Give me more money, or I won't open the schools," he said.
"Fine," said the legislature. "We'll give you money, and we'll take over your district." (The Dem chair of the appropriations committee characterized Hornbeck's move as "bold but not very wise")
Since about 2001, Philly schools have been run by the School Reform Commission, a board with three state appointees and two city appointees. That board has struggled with the task of keeping the schools functioning while still reflecting the governor's desire for all public education to go crawl in a hole somewhere and die.The SRC chugs along mostly quietly, emerging into the news every time they ask for another set of school laws to be suspended (End tenure and FILO please? Can we make teachers pay us to work here and then also work in the lunchroom?) The public school system of Philadelphia has been weakened, operated by a panel that doesn't even particularly believe in public education, operating under a law that gives them the power to ignore school law because they're poor. Remember that.
This of course has meant glorious good time for charters in Philly. The SRC has been able to follow Governor Corbett's charter philosophy (roughly, "Charters are super-swell, whether they're run by crooks or not").
That leaves them in a bind, because PA charters are the bloodsucking leeches of the education world. PA law says that when a child leaves your public school system, you must hand a pile of money over to the charter, and you are never, ever allowed to ask what the hell they did with it. Seriously-- when charter operators get caught defrauding in PA, it's usually only because the feds got involved. In PA, charter students get to take their ball, the bases and the grass off the field when they go home. Public school students are still free to play with rocks and dirt.
It seems that the SRC has started to notice that charter operators are, in fact, part of their financial woes. And so they have taken the unprecedented step of refusing to re-certify a charter, specifically the Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School. They are accused of not being academically superior to public schools, but mostly for hosing the school district financially.
The hosing seems to have taken two forms. One is billing for students they don't actually have enrolled. This is the oldest charter trick in the book-- enroll a student long enough to bring in money, then force him out before he can actually cost you money. This is why on certain days of the year you will find cyber-school operators and public school guidance counselors perched at their computers, like crazed bidders at some reverse ebay auction, passing students back and forth like cyber-hot-potatoes before the timer chimes.
Palmer's other infraction was to exceed their cap. Charter certifiers sometimes cap enrollment at the charter. Palmer exceeded theirs. Golly, you say, with all this coming and going I'm sure an accounting error could easily creep in. I'm thinking not. Palmer was authorized to enroll 675 students; they had 1289. That amounts to over $12 million traveling out of Philly schools into Palmer's coffers.
So now the PA rules that allow the SRC to carve up Philly schools are being turned on Palmer, and Palmer, who benefited from the public school buffet, now thinks the no-rules rules are bogus and must be fought.
SRC says under the financially-strapped-school-martial-law laws, they can totally do this. Palmer says, "You have no right to mess with our schools." If Philly schools were not such a sad mess, it would be entertaining to watch two large opponents of public education battle to the death.
I have no idea whether Walter D. Palmer (yes, the school is named after the real 80-year-old guy running it) thinks he's found a great retirement slush fund or truly believes he's operating a lifeboat for Philly's children, but he and his folks are fighting back. They have a moveon.org petition, some lawsuits going against the state, and a request for an injunction on the grounds that the SRC is overstepping their bounds.
Meanwhile, another charter is pushing back against oversight. The SRC was in front of the state supreme court arguing to be allowed to cap enrollment at West Philadelphia Achievement at all. The charter has said the SRC cannot do any such thing, and they refuse to agree to a cap, which the SRC says means they won't be allowed to open. The SRC says that the financial hardship no law law allows them to set caps, that the gushing of money from charters is in fact part of their financial problems.
The court has agreed to hear the case in the fall. This is huge in PA. It was the assertion that school districts need assistance and relief that opened the door to let charters dance into a happy land of do-as-they-please. If that same argument can be turned against the charters, then the business model of PA charters being able to make money more easily than a mint-- that could be in trouble, which would be great news for public education. Cross your fingers, but don't throw away your leech repellant.