Selected readings on US charter schools
Pennsylvania’s Charter School Law must be updated to reflect what we have learned in the past 17 years about the intelligent and effective operation and oversight of charter schools. Two pieces of legislation currently under consideration in Harrisburg offer much-needed reforms, but sections of both bills are based more on political expediency than what is best for the children of Pennsylvania.
When legislation authorizing the creation of charter schools first passed the General Assembly in 1997, our law was considered among the most enlightened in the nation. But the fact that no significant changes have been made to the law in 17 years has pushed Pennsylvania to the bottom half of national charter law rankings.
Today, more than 120,000 students attend Pennsylvania’s 174 charter schools, while 44,000 children are on waiting lists to get in. In Philadelphia alone, 67,000 students attend charter schools, an enrollment figure larger than any school district in Pennsylvania except Philadelphia itself. For many families, charter schools provide hope for the future of their children that they cannot get anywhere else, yet the legislation providing guidance on the operation and oversight of these schools lags far behind that reality.
Current charter reform legislation in Harrisburg — House Bill 618 and Senate Bill 1085 — are both thoughtful and comprehensive. The bills include concepts on accountability, transparency, ethics and financial stewardship that we have supported for years. But two issues appear to be major stumbling blocks to passage: pension reimbursement and university authorizers.
Under current law, a charter school is reimbursed for its pension costs by both the local district and the state. As a result of this pension “double dip,” charter school pension expenses are overfunded by roughly 20-50 percent. This overfunding is wrong and should be rectified, but both bills under consideration in the Assembly offer alternatives that go too far and underfund actual charter school pension expenses by as much as 50 percent. Charters should not be paid for expenses they do not have, but neither should they be underfunded for real expenses.
If such underfunding becomes law, a number of smaller charter schools will be forced to close, not because they are failing to serve the needs of children and parents, but because they will no longer have the funds they need to operate.
We have always believed that the only way to have a consistently strong charter sector is to have reliable and fair charter authorizers that provide the flexibility to innovate while holding schools accountable to clear and consistent performance criteria — without political agendas. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Pennsylvania; therefore, we need additional authorization pathways for schools, including universities.
Currently, the Pennsylvania Department of Education authorizes cyber charter schools, while brick-and-mortar charters are authorized by school districts. PDE has closed two cyber schools and has not approved a new cyber school in two years. We support those actions because PDE is raising the standard for cyber schools and has placed the welfare of the children at the apex of their priorities.
District authorizers, by contrast, have the education of their own students as their priority and sometimes view charter schools as a threat because they compete for students, thus creating a tense relationship, resulting in insufficient oversight.
While two authorizers, PDE and the School District of Philadelphia, oversee 100 of Pennsylvania’s 174 charter schools, the remaining 74 charters are authorized and overseen by 38 districts, with 29 districts overseeing just one charter school.
Because these districts oversee so few schools, there is no incentive to invest in good oversight, nor is there is any consistency across districts when it comes to forms, processes, procedures, evaluation criteria or contracts. Without reforms to the current system, there is nothing on the horizon to indicate that any of these districts, with the exception of Philadelphia, are doing anything to improve this situation.
Senate Bill 1085 would allow universities to authorize charter schools. It is a system that has been proven to work well in other parts of the nation, including the State University of New York (SUNY) where, after four years of operation, 87 percent of the SUNY-authorized charter schools outperform their home district in mathematics, and 84 percent in language arts. The details of a university authorizer need to be worked out, but it is an option that is worth further discussion and open-minded consideration.
Reasonable minds can come to a solution that improves education options for our children and financial stewardship of our tax dollars, but that will never happen so long as those at the table place the welfare of their system or their adult special interest group above that of our children.