Not enough bang for the buck?

The recent state takeover of Philadelphia's troubled school system came as no real surprise to a city long struggling with poor test scores, high truancy rates, and a dearth of well-qualified teachers. But few anticipated that the city's charter school movement, which enjoys considerable community support, would also come under scrutiny.

Operation of the city school system is now in the hands of the School Reform Commission, which plans to give management responsibility for dozens of regular public schools to a private company that would work in partnership with community organizations. Anger is still simmering among some parents who organized loud protests in recent months over the possibility that for-profit Edison Schools Inc. will take over some of these schools.

But now the reform efforts have stirred up a new controversy: Last month, the commission announced that it would postpone for a year any consideration of the 25 applications for new charter schools.

Philadelphia was one of the first urban areas to enthusiastically embrace charter schools. Thirty-nine of the independently run public schools operate in the city today, offering parents alternative schools based around themes such as technology or character development.

The surprise decision was a bitter one for most of the charter school applicants, some of whom had spent years drawing up plans. Many had been expecting a green light.

But perhaps even more alarming to the charter community were comments made by the commission's chairman, James Nevels. He spoke of the charters as a drain on city resources, and indicated that they accounted for about half of the $200 million deficit in the education budget.

Some advocates saw the remarks as a way of scapegoating the charter schools. "It's a cheap way of attacking charter schools and finding somewhere to lay blame for their financial problems," says Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform in Washington.

Mr. Nevels said later in a radio interview that he supports charters and his remarks were misunderstood. But that was not enough to allay concerns. Charter school operators are watching to see what happens with 11 charters that are waiting for license renewals; a decision is due as early as tomorrow.

Few anticipate serious problems for the charter schools, which for the most part enjoy community and parental backing. But some operators say they were not given the kind of advance notice and administrative attention offered to the schools that were up for renewal last year. They wonder if that means charters are being sidelined by the new state administration.

"This is very disappointing," says John Skief, chief administrative officer of the Harambee Institute charter school. "Charters are the only tangible tool of renewal out there, and now ... we don't know if the state supports us or not."

Some say the state is unlikely to move against these popular schools. "I don't think they're going to play games with this," says Veronica Joyner, chief administrative officer of the Mathematics, Civics, and Sciences Charter School. "The parents are very aggressive in advocating for these schools."

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