Opinion

School choice: Eyes wide open

In the Centre Region, both charter and cyber charter schools operate while families in rural school districts may have no charter schools operating in their districts. The majority of these schools are for-profit entities, although some charter schools are operated by nonprofit organizations such as churches and grassroots community organizations.

With the appointment of Betsy DeVos as the new secretary of education under President Trump (not confirmed), the charter school movement in K-12 education now finds itself with a prominent advocate. DeVos also is a strong advocate for vouchers, which use tax dollars to subsidize private schools, including the religiously affiliated.

Pennsylvania’s charter school law, first passed in 1997 and revised in 2004, was intended to be a guide for the optimal relationship between charter schools and their host school districts. While the law states that school districts have oversight responsibility for the charter schools under their jurisdiction, in practice this has not been the case, particularly for cyber charters.

The charter school law was initially designed on the ideal of cooperative relationships between charter schools and districts, with the Department of Education serving as the mediator. Conflicts between the two entities are to be resolved in Harrisburg.

Currently, school districts hand over a check to charter schools based on per-pupil expenditures for each student they enroll. The philosophy behind the funding is that the money follows the child, whether he or she attends a regular public or charter school. The cash payout per pupil is the same regardless of the school attended.

Both charter and public schools are responsible for providing an Individualized Education Program to students when needed. When a student with an IEP enrolls in a charter school, the payment the charter school receives is about double the normal rate. However, not all IEPs are created equal. Many are minimal, and the actual cost to accommodate the student is small.

Many charters schools have learned to “cherry pick” these less expensive students, thereby making a profit on each one. Often, the student is “discovered” to need an IEP only after they have enrolled in a charter school; rarely is a student with an expensive accommodation allowed to enroll. This arrangement costs taxpayers statewide hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

While the law references charter schools being required to submit financial reports to their school district, the language is weak and it is unclear as to the amount of detail required. There should be a level playing field; the requirements for financial reports for public schools and charter schools ought to be identical.

After his 2016 audit of PA Cyber Charter School, Pennsylvania’s Auditor General Eugene DePasquale urged the Pennsylvania legislature to “make charter school management companies, which receive millions upon millions of taxpayer dollars, explicitly subject to Pennsylvania’s open records law.”

Last year, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association initiated a right-to-know request of the commonwealth’s 173 charter schools. Initially, a little more than half of those schools complied. But 19 charter schools refused to comply at all, even after being directed to do so by the state Office of Open Records.

Accountability for student learning also requires greater oversight by school districts. While debate continues over the efficacy of the required PSSA exams, the exams are one of the only measures of accountability for student performance in the commonwealth. Some charter schools are keeping pace with public schools’ performances; however, others especially cyber charter schools, are falling abysmally short. Performance on the PSSA exams should be used as one indicator of a school’s right to continue to receive taxpayer money and ultimately to stay in business. At the very least, charter schools should be required to demonstrate, by some reasonable measure, that the innovation that is the basis for their charter is having a positive effect on student learning.

Public school districts have elected boards composed of local citizens who reside in their communities. Charter and cyber schools often are run by management companies located outside the community. As DePasquale notes, a change to the current law is needed “to allow public input on who is given the role of a trustee charged with overseeing cyber charter school operations.” Before enrolling your child in a charter school, interested parents should do their homework, with particular attention paid to the philosophies of the company and its board of directors.

When it comes to our children’s education, increased choice can be a good thing. Innovations in teaching and learning can arise from these schools and can be modeled by others—but current Pennsylvania charter school law, by creating an adversarial relationship between the charter school and the host district, actually discourages that. At the same time, we can’t afford to put our children at risk because they represent a business opportunity. Let’s make sure our eyes are wide open when we advocate for school choice. Urge your legislators to revisit the charter school law and address its weaknesses.

Hall, Hodes and Dupuis are members of The American Association of University Women State College, which is part of a nationwide network of about 1,000 branches that are dedicated to advancing equity for women and girls.

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