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Charter school applicant seeks probe of Pittsburgh public schools

| Thursday, Feb. 15, 2007

A charter school applicant is asking the state to investigate Pittsburgh Public Schools, accusing it of unfairly rejecting charter schools.

"Education Innovations, Inc., is requesting an immediate investigation of misconduct, misuse of public funds, and violations of the civil rights of students in the charter review process of the Pittsburgh Public Schools," wrote its CEO, Salvador Wilcox, in a letter Wednesday to Gerald L. Zahorchak, Pennsylvania secretary of Education.

The Education Department did not respond to requests from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review for an interview.

Wilcox sent the letter on the same day that the city school board rejected three applications for charter schools, including his. Education Innovations proposed a charter school in East Liberty that eventually would have served children from kindergarten through 12th grade. Also denied were applications from Polaris Academy for a K-12 school in Carrick, and Three Rivers Youth Leadership Academy for a high school in East Liberty.

Wilcox contended that the district rarely approves charter schools.

A school district review team recommended against approving the school, claiming it would engage in excessive testing and lack parental involvement.

"If you had to summarize our philosophy of standardized tests: We don't like them," Wilcox said yesterday.

Education Innovations said it would consider practice tests every seven weeks if it did not meet federal academic standards. Wilcox said the review team incorrectly interpreted that as excessive testing.

As for parental involvement, he said two of the school's six-member grievance committee members would be parents.

City schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt and board President William Isler disputed Wilcox's allegations.

"People don't have a right to open a school," Roosevelt said. "They have to meet certain criteria. I think the district does a fair job in applying the criteria."

"It was a very unfair letter, because our teams take a great deal of care whenever they're evaluating programs for children, and they evaluate every program against what the Pittsburgh Public Schools is doing," Isler said. "We expect no less from charter schools than we do our own schools."

Wilcox was backed by Timothy Daniels, executive director of the Chester County-based Pennsylvania Coalition of Charter Schools.

"We have made an attempt to communicate with Pittsburgh on these matters," he said. "It's been treated with some disdain, like they know how to do it better."

Wilcox alleged that the district was underfunding charter schools.

District spokeswoman Lisa Fischetti said the district has been forced by the state to reimburse charter schools for several million dollars because of its incorrect method of categorizing charter school payments.

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