Battle of Chester Upland goes to court today

All eyes in the Pennsylvania education community will be riveted on a Delaware County courtroom today.

That's where officials with the state Department of Education will face state their case in the latest financial recovery plan for the seemingly perpetually ailing Chester Upland School District.

Unveiled last week, the state's plan includes a forensic audit of the Chester Upland books, and the appointment of a financial turnaround specialist.

But those are just the preliminaries.

The real battle that will play out in front of Delaware County Judge Chad Kenney involves the reimbursement Chester Upland makes for special education students in the district who attend charter schools.

Right now Chester Upland pays more than $40,000 for every special education student who attends a charter school. State officials are flabbergasted at that figure and want the judge to OK a plan that would slash the reimbursement to just more than $16,000.

Coupled with changes in reimbursement for students attending cyberschools, the state says the move could wipe out the district's $23 million deficit.

Without the changes, they say it's possible the district will not be able to open their doors in September. And if they do, they cannot guarantee how long they'll be able to stay open. That $23 million in red ink is expected to grow to more than $40 million if nothing is done.

Charter school backers are not impressed. They believe they are simply going to be made the scapegoat for decades of state control and financial mismanagement that have failed to put Chester Upland on a sound financial footing.

Late Friday afternoon, I had a conversation with A. Bruce Cawley. He represents Chester Community Charter School, the biggest brick and mortar charter school in the state, and the brainchild of political heavyweight Vahan Gureghian.

Cawley doesn't understand why the state is making headlines over the situation in Chester Upland, but is saying nothing about similar reimbursements in more well-to-do districts.

Cawley says gone are the days when charter schools were considered "interlopers" in public education. In fact, nearly half of Chester Upland students sit in charter schools. While the district has been successful in drawing some students back into the public schools, charters are no longer a novelty.

Cawley says the state move is a direct attack on charter schools, as well as a move to limit choice for parents and families who for years have been saddled with a school district that failed their children.

And it's not just the for-profit Chester Community Charter School. Widener University also has a big stake in the charter school business with its Widener Partnership Charter School.

"We think this is a direct attack on charter schools," said Widener spokesman Dan Hanson.

We'll be in court today for the latest in this heavyweight education bout.