Philadelphia can’t impose conditions on charter operator seeking to open middle school, state appeal board rules

Charter Appeals Board counsel Mark Zaccarelli, center, attended the board's monthly meeting in Harrisburg. Other members of the board participated over the phone.

A powerful state board decided on Tuesday that the Philadelphia school district, home to more charter schools than any other public school system in the state, cannot impose conditions on a charter school operator before allowing it to open a new campus in the city. 

The five-member Charter School Appeal Board voted unanimously during its brief meeting at Pennsylvania Department of Education headquarters in Harrisburg on Tuesday to grant an appeal filed by Franklin Towne Charter Schools, which currently operates two public charter schools in Philadelphia. 

The decision repeals the conditions that Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission placed on Franklin Towne’s 2018 application to open a middle school for 450 students. 

Tuesday’s vote by the appeal board took place after just a few minutes of discussion among its members, all of whom joined the meeting by phone. 

Board member Julie Cook, a teacher at Souderton Charter School Collaborative in Montgomery County, said Philadelphia district officials offered a “justified argument” against Franklin Towne’s enrollment lottery, which critics say is unorthodox among Pennsylvania charter schools. 

Nonetheless, Cook concluded that the charter school’s policies were legal and that the conditions imposed by Philadelphia school officials were “outside the bounds” of Pennsylvania’s charter school law, which was passed in 1997.

“I may personally wish the law were updated to address the issues that this [case] brings forward, but this is not my role,” Cook said before voting with her colleagues to grant the appeal.

Since opening their doors in 2000 and 2009, respectively, Franklin Towne’s high school and K-8 elementary schools have shown promising results for their combined 2,075 students — the majority of whom are considered “economically disadvantaged,” according to Pennsylvania Department of Education data. 

Most of Franklin Towne’s students meet or exceed state benchmarks in math and reading, and the high school’s 97 percent graduation rate is nearly 10 percent higher than the statewide average.

But the charter network has been dogged by criticisms over its management and its enrollment practices. 

A review of Franklin Towne’s middle school charter application by Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission found that its board, management companies, and landlord were rife with conflicts of interest, according to the Philadelphia education news website The Notebook.

The Education Law Center also says the charter schools discriminate against students with disabilities. Other critics say their admissions processes favor white students.

White students account for only 14 percent of the Philadelphia School District’s enrollment base, but make up nearly two-thirds of Franklin Towne’s student body, according to district data. 

In an April 2018 ruling, the Philadelphia school board said it would grant Franklin Towne’s application to open a new middle school only if the charter company met certain conditions related to admissions and enrollment, according to The Notebook.

The charter school sought relief from those conditions last June when it appealed to the Charter School Appeal Board.

Among other requirements, the city school board wanted Franklin Towne to limit its enrollment to 300 students and to give enrollment preference to students from neighborhoods with high non-white populations, The Notebook reported.

District officials also wanted to prevent Franklin Towne from using a lottery enrollment system currently in place at its two other charter schools. 

Under state law, when a charter school can’t accommodate all the students who wish to enroll, the school is required to hold a lottery to fill the slots. 

Many charter schools will hold a lottery once a year to generate a ranked enrollment roster; the students who don’t make the cut are kept on a waiting list in case a slot opens up for them. 

But Franklin Towne doesn’t rely on its general lottery results to fill its vacancies at its charter schools. It runs a new lottery every time a vacancy opens up — a practice that critics say lacks transparency and makes it hard for families to plan for their children’s education. 

Cook questioned the lottery practice on Tuesday, but said she nonetheless felt obligated to grant Franklin Towne’s appeal.

“As much as I personally find their lottery practices misguided, and hope that they will change, I have to find in favor of the charter school,” Cook said Tuesday.

The Philadelphia Board of Education can appeal the state board’s decision to Commonwealth Court. City officials at Tuesday’s meeting said they were still evaluating their options and declined to comment further on the case. 

Gov. Tom Wolf announced a suite of reforms this summer that he says will improve transparency and accountability in Pennsylvania’s charter sector, which enrolls 140,000 students across the state.

But the Democratic governor hasn’t taken any action to repopulate the six-member charter appeals board. 

All five current members of the board are holdovers from the Corbett administration whose terms have expired, a fact The Notebook highlighted earlier this year. 

Wolf has not nominated new appointees to replace the current members or to fill the board’s vacant seat since he took office in 2015. Nominees must be approved by the Republican-controlled state Senate.

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