In Philadelphia the city’s charter schools have received $500 million in taxpayer-backed bonds and most of that money has been mismanaged under Dr. William Hite Jr (pictured above). The same culture continues in many ways in Prince George’s County where he left as Superintendent of schools.
Philadelphia’s regular public school buildings are so run down that the cost to repair them is estimated at $4 billion. Those buildings aren’t likely to get face-lifts with the School District limping from funding crisis to funding crisis. In contrast, the city’s charter schools have received $500 million in taxpayer-backed bonds for new or improved buildings.
The gaping inequity exists in part because the legislature has not properly updated the state’s charter school law since it was passed. The 1997 act guarantees a lopsided, conflict-ridden system with too little oversight and too few opportunities for taxpayers to influence critical financial and academic decisions affecting a growing number of students.
With no one saying no, some charters are in a frenzy to acquire or renovate buildings and finance the transactions with bond issues they can’t afford. The Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. issues bonds for charters, but fees for lawyers, consultants, and others who profit from the deals aren’t fully disclosed.
Bonds for charters cost more because the risks are higher, Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker told Philly.com’s Alex Wigglesworth and Ryan Briggs. Those risks are passed on to taxpayers, who get stuck with even more costs when charters default, which has become common nationally.
Consider the Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School. It was the first Philadelphia charter to receive bond funding, and the first to default. The Northern Liberties school spent $11 million in bond funds in 2005, but closed abruptly in December. Taxpayers have paid $6 million in debt service, but the building will likely be sold to pay creditors.
String Theory Charter School in Center City is paying $5.6 million a year in debt service on the $55 million it borrowed to purchase a swanky building. The charter’s debt service has helped put String Theory $500,000 in the red and forced it to cancel some classes and bus service.
The $3,895 per student String Theory spends on debt service for the high-rise it bought far exceeds the average of $875 per student being spent on district schools such as Solis-Cohen Elementary in the Northeast, which was so run-down that its students had to be transferred for safety.
While legislators fail to pass a budget – even as they take home one of the biggest pay and perquisite packages in the nation – traditional public schools are being forced to share their scarce resources with charters that don’t have to play by the same rules, but should.
The state’s charter law should be updated to provide stronger administration, oversight, and transparency without loopholes. Too many charters end up in trouble without proper guidance on borrowing and spending.