Rhetoric hurts charter school perception

In an era of fake news, hyperbole and politically charged rhetoric, it is critical that policy discussions rely on facts. Advocates for or opponents of causes and political initiatives know that if you can’t beat them with the truth, you can always reinforce negative perceptions to bolster your argument. Sadly, this approach is tarnishing the discourse around public education in Pennsylvania. It is disappointing that narrow, one-sided rhetoric from charter school opponents receives traction in newspapers across the commonwealth.

Lawrence Feinberg’s recent commentary in the Centre Daily Times is a perfect example of unchecked rhetoric that creates negative perceptions of charter schools, all while being in direct conflict with reality. Feinberg’s commentary reinforces two false narratives within the charter school debate in Pennsylvania: that charters are privatizing public education and are not accountable to taxpayers.

Attempting to create a negative association with Pennsylvania charter schools, he notes that 80 percent of charters in another state are operated by for-profit organizations, possibly a result of activity by the incoming federal secretary of education. The reality that was not mentioned by Feinberg is that in Pennsylvania today, less than five of the 177 charter and cyber charter schools have management agreements with a for-profit entity. More than 97 percent of our charter and cyber schools do not engage a for-profit school manager. Feinberg was successful in diverting the discussion away from facts by associating charter schools in Pennsylvania with a controversial nominee at the federal level, but he neglected to recognize that right now in our state, it is accurate to acknowledge that for-profit education providers play an almost non-existent role in public education management.

Fostering the perception that charter schools are not accountable to taxpayers is just as unrealistic as the for-profit takeover rhetoric is. While this provides a great soundbite for traditional school board members, teacher union representatives, aspiring politicians and one-size fits all education advocates, it is simply false. Charter schools are public schools. The responsibility and privilege of educating children with taxpayer dollars comes with significant accountability that parallels traditional district accountability. Public school board members, of both traditional and charter models, are public officials compelled to comply with the Public Official Ethics Act. Just like their district counterparts, charter board members and key employees are required to complete annual Statements of Financial Interests. Charter board meetings and actions are subject to the same Sunshine Laws as traditional district board meetings and actions. Both types of public schools are required to file the same financial compliance reports with the Pennsylvania Department of Education, such as an annual budget, annual financial report and voluminous data sets through the Pennsylvania Information Management System. When these reports are filed, either by a district or a charter, they become accessible as a public record. Every charter school is a nonprofit corporation required to file IRS form 990. This publicly available document is the nonprofit tax filing providing comprehensive fiscal information such as salary and benefit details for school leaders, significant payments to contracted vendors, and board member information. It addresses more than 100 questions from the IRS regarding conflict of interest, related organizations, governance structure, loan and debt relationships, non-discrimination policies, as well as a detail of the assets and liabilities of the charter school. Public charters, just like traditional districts, are also required by law to have annual audits conducted by an independent audit firm. These reports meet Governmental Accounting Standards Board regulations and are public documents. Failure to comply with any of these mandated accountability measures can be grounds for closing a charter school during each five-year renewal period.

This accountability is real and reoccurring; however, it pales in comparison to the ultimate accountability that charters embrace. The compelling force of parental choice holds charter school leaders and board members accountable to their mission each and every day. If there are not enough students choosing to attend a charter school, that school will dissolve.

As this appears to be the goal of those propagating false perceptions about charters, I would suggest they focus their energy on improving the school structure and performance of their preferred schools. Wasting energy by polluting the discourse about public schools with misinformation is not in anyone’s best interests, especially the students and parents of the commonwealth.

Ryan Schumm, of Charter Choices, can be reached at ryan@charterchoices.com, or 215-481-9777 ext.126.