This piece comes to us courtesy of a partnership between the Philadelphia Public School Notebook and WHYY/NewsWorks

Even as federal investigators were finalizing a massive fraud indictment against one of Philadelphia's most prominent charter school operators, the School Reform Commission was moving thousands of students and hundreds of millions of dollars into the city's publicly funded charter sector.

It's a massive gamble, made riskier by the meager staffing in the School District's Office of Charter Schools. Currently, 80 independently managed Philadelphia charters serving more than 50,000 students are monitored by just six people – a number that observers on all sides of the heated charter school debate agree is woefully inadequate.

"It's not a good recipe for accountability," says Mark Gleason, the executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP), a two-year-old nonprofit organization that has been leading the push to expand the city's supply of "high-quality" charter seats.

How to overhaul and pay for a robust new charter office is one of the next big challenges facing city education leaders. Despite months of sporadic, mostly private, conversations, there is still no consensus.

The problem isn't just limited capacity.

While numerous Philadelphia charter operators have been taken into court on charges of fraud and other crimes, others have received national accolades for their impressive academic results and strong connection with parents. As a result, there remain sharp differences of opinion about the charter office's basic purpose:

Should it be a watchdog, focused on regulating charters and holding them accountable?

Or should it be a guide dog, focused on supporting charters and helping them succeed and expand?

Lori Shorr, the city's chief education officer, says that in order to be effective, the charter office needs to be both -- especially if Philadelphia hopes to fend off state Republicans' plans to create a statewide charter authorizing body that could turn the city's public education system into a deregulated free-for-all.

"We're trying hard to have a managed market of schools in Philadelphia," said Shorr.

"Both charter operators and citizens have to have faith that [charters are] being monitored and supported well."

A MORE CHARTER-FRIENDLY CHARTER OFFICE?

Figuring out how to strike that balance is proving tricky.

Last November, District and charter leaders, along with city and state officials, signed on to the Philadelphia Great Schools Compact, a joint pledge to replace 50,000 "low-performing seats" with better options.

The compact calls for the creation of a new Office of Charter Schools that would report directly to the SRC. Despite a July 1, 2012, deadline, that plan is still simmering on the back burner, on hold until the SRC can better define what its new "portfolio management" approach will look like and incoming Superintendent William Hite has a chance to weigh in.

But conversations about overhauling the charter office haven't stopped.

In May, the Philadelphia School Partnership submitted on behalf of the Great Schools Compact a $7 million grant proposal to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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