By Daniel Kelley
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Philadelphia's financially distressed school district, one of the country's biggest battlegrounds over the expansion of charter schools, will learn on Wednesday whether new charter schools will be approved for the first time in seven years.
The Philadelphia School Reform Commission, formed in 2001 as part of a state takeover of the city's education system due to financial problems and low test scores, is slated to vote on applications for 39 charter schools.
The district already has 86 charter institutions, public schools that operate independently and offer an alternative to schools run by the local school district. Proponents say charters can help get students out of low-performing schools, while critics blame them for worsening the district's finances.
The American Federation of Teachers has fought against the nation's expansion of mostly non-unionized charter schools, including in Philadelphia. The AFT says some of the schools fail and that they lack accountability and transparency.
Some Pennsylvania power players see it differently.
"There is an opportunity here to save a lot of kids," said Pennsylvania House of Representatives Speaker Mike Turzai, a Republican and a charter school advocate, in an interview.
RAPID RISE IN ENROLLMENT
Despite the lack of new charter licenses in years, these schools have grown rapidly in Pennsylvania as the district has turned over some under-performing schools to charter operators and existing charters have expanded enrollment.
Charter school enrollment has doubled since 2007, when the they served 32,000 students. They now educate 30 percent, or 64,000 of the Philadelphia system's 207,000 students, according to district figures.
They also account for about a third, or $766.7 million, of the district's $2.5 billion budget. That is an uptick from 2011, when charters took up $430 million, or 18 percent of the budget, according to district budget documents.
Opponents warn that approving new charter seats could deny resources to existing public schools. When students transfer into charter schools, they essentially take their funding with them but leave the public schools stuck with the fixed costs like building maintenance and central administration.
Charters receive about $10,000 a year for each student they enroll, the same as the district spends on students in other schools. But according to an analysis by the Boston Consulting Group, each charter seat costs the district on average about $7,000 in costs it cannot shed.
"It's a loss and it needs to be funded. It has to be taken from somewhere," said Joseph Dworetzky, a former member of the School Reform Commission. "You end up with students and families not transferring to charter schools having a reduction in what is being spent on their education."
While charter growth is not the only cost driver in the district's budget, education reformers acknowledged that financial pressures could deter the commission from approving new charters.
Unlike most school boards, the commission does not have taxing authority and must rely on appropriations from the state and city to cover shortfalls in property tax receipts.
A spokesman for Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat, says Wolf opposes new charters.
"The Wolf administration believes the SRC must stabilize, not worsen, the district's finances," said Wolf's press secretary Jeff Sheridan. "It cannot spend money it does not have for new charters or other expenses."
Wolf beat incumbent Republican Governor Tom Corbett in November in part because some voters said Corbett had underfunded the state's public schools.
(Reporting by Daniel Kelley in Philadelphia; Editing by Hilary Russ in New York and Cynthia Osterman)