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Corporate Charters Get the Cash: Philadelphia Charter School Battle Casts Shadow Nationwide

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Nationally noted activist/educator Dr. Walter D. Palmer, founder of an innovative charter school in Philadelphia, is in a historic battle with Philadelphia School District officials which could impact charters across Pennsylvania as well as the current debates nationwide over reforming public education.

At issue is the failure of Philadelphia district officials to provide $1.7-million in funds for the high school at Palmer's charter--money that he says prior school district officials approved but never delivered.

District officials counter that the Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Charter School, before launching its high school, never obtained formal approval from the School Reform Commission. As a consequence, they claim the school district owes the school nothing.

The SRC is a state government created and controlled entity that oversees public schools in Philadelphia including the 74 charters operating in that city.

If Palmer looses this battle, now being fought out in Pennsylvania's appellate Commonwealth Court, it could bankrupt the school he opened in 2000, shuttering the impressive multi-million new building opened a few years ago in an impoverished section of North Philadelphia.

A win for the Palmer School enables charter schools in Philadelphia and statewide to increase enrollments.

Dr. Palmer says numerous former District and SRC leaders repeatedly gave approvals but the District's Charter School Office didn't provide the paperwork to the SRC for its formal approval.

"We received the approvals and proceeded in good faith but the Charter School Office didn't put the approvals in front of the SRC," Palmer says. But he added he thinks something other than a technicality is involved in the funding snag, saying, "I've publicly critiqued the Charter School Office. We think this refusal to pay us is retaliation."
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Among the evidence being presented by the Palmer School against the School District in its $1.7-million lawsuit: a 2007 email from a ranking District administrator confirming that the Palmer School had received proper green-lights from district officials.

That email states that an approval resolution for the School "was pulled" from the SRC's October and November meetings in 2007 weeks after Palmer had already begun operating high school classes as directed by District/SRC officials.

Palmer, in an 8/9/10 letter to SRC Chairman Robert Archie, stated that the District's Charter School Office "admits to their failure to submit such a resolution" certifying the Palmer School's high school expansion.

SRC Chairman Archie did not respond to requests for comment. Dr. Palmer says he received commitments from Archie earlier this year to release the $1.7-million.

The School District of Philadelphia declined comment on "any specifics" citing the Palmer School's lawsuit. District spokespersons previously told the news media that the matter was simply one of the Palmer school's acting without proper authorizations.
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The SRC, in its June 2010 renewal of the Palmer School's charter for another five years, curiously capped enrollment at 675, instructing the school to immediately begin phasing out its high school, yet still providing no funding for those high school students currently enrolled.

"This is as convoluted as you ever want to make it," Palmer said. "I'm carrying 900 students already but they are only paying me for 675."

The Palmer School carries the distinction of being the first charter in America with a curriculum focus on social justice and character development.

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Linn Washington is a weekly columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune and This Can't Be Happening. Washington writes frequently on inequities in the criminal justice system, ills in society and failings of the news media. He teaches multi-media urban (more...)
 

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