Pennsylvania’s charter sector needs a scalpel, not a sledgehamme

Mark Gleason is the Executive Director of Philadelphia School Partnership
Thomas B. Fordham Institute – Flypaper

Pennsylvania’s Democratic Governor Tom Wolf garnered headlines recently when he announced vague plans for taking funding away from the state’s public charter schools. He also described charters as benefiting from an unlevel playing field for accountability and transparency. Sadly, it’s a sure bet in 2019 that when a politician calls for more transparency, he doesn’t practice what he preaches.

Let’s start with the money. That’s where politics almost always starts, and ends. The governor and school districts across the state complain that charter costs are eating into district budgets. However, state-reported data show that district revenues have grown at a faster rate than charter revenues. From fiscal 2009 to fiscal 2018, charter enrollment in Pennsylvania nearly doubled, contributing to a decline in overall district enrollment. Even so, district revenues, after deducting charter payments, jumped by 28 percent overall. On a per-pupil basis, district revenues rose 37 percent, versus just 27 percent for charters.

Talk about an unlevel playing field. Charter schools (and thus charter students) only receive about 85 cents on the dollar in Pennsylvania, compared with school district funding. Inflexible cost drivers, such as pension obligations, are the districts’ big problem, one that would be there with or without charter growth.

On the issue of transparency, in nearly all respects charter schools are subject to the same reporting requirements as school districts. State law treats charters and districts both as local education agencies (LEAs); the state publishes the same academic performance reports for both types of schools. The charter sector came together early this year to push for a new law that would strengthen ethics requirements for charter school leaders and boards. The majority Republican House passed it with bipartisan support, 189 to 7, but the governor didn’t push for the bill’s inclusion in year-end legislative negotiations.

Accountability is more complex. Because brick-and-mortar charters are solely authorized by local school districts, each district is responsible for performance monitoring. Some do it better than others. Charter accountability in Philadelphia—where half of the state’s charter students reside—is rigorous. Every charter receives a detailed and public annual evaluation covering enrollment, governance, academics, and finance. These reports are easily accessible on the school district’s website. Since 2013, a dozen charter schools in Philadelphia have been closed as a result of weak academic performance and, in some cases, financial struggle. Encouragingly, during the same period the school board approved expansions for many of the city’s highest-performing charters.

The authorizer who probably does the least when it comes to accountability is … Tom Wolf. His state Department of Education has been critical of cyber charter schools’ academic performance—and is also the entity responsible for authorizing all cyber charters. The department has neither published annual evaluations for these schools nor established a clear set of performance standards.

Charter schools in Pennsylvania provide educational opportunity for 143,000 students. That makes it the nation’s seventh-largest charter sector. Students enroll for many reasons: innovation, science and technology curricula, or a more personalized learning environment. Others simply want safety. In Philadelphia, charter enrollment is 75 percent African American and Hispanic, as families zoned to attend some of the state’s lowest-achieving schools have sought out other options. According to a study published this year by CREDO, the charter-school research hub at Stanford University, the state’s urban brick-and-mortar charters, most of which are in Philly, produce nearly two additional months of learning in reading for the average student, per school year, compared with traditional public schools.

Despite all of the obfuscation, there is an opportunity to build bipartisan consensus and improve charter policy. Even the appearance of schools having cozy relationships with for-profit entities is unacceptable. Clarifying the rules for avoiding conflicts of interest will ensure taxpayer resources are creating opportunities for students, not founders and insiders. Adding clarity about best practices for measuring school performance, and holding all authorizers accountable to those practices, will help schools and authorizers both (and ultimately students).

It’s important that authorizers not be given too much leeway to create obstacles. Local school boards have an inherent interest in not creating competition for themselves, so there have to be clear and consistent criteria—aligned to what families want in a school—for judging new charter applications.

Any reforms have to be tackled with fairness and respect for all students as the starting point. Making speeches is easy. Given Pennsylvania’s balance of political power and the complexity of the issues involved, improving charter authorizing here requires patience, trust, and cooperation.

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