Their View | Charter schools differ

Hayley Hanley, a Centre Learning Community Charter School student, cuts zucchini during a Cooking with Kids program at Penn State’s Cafe Laura in 2011.
Hayley Hanley, a Centre Learning Community Charter School student, cuts zucchini during a Cooking with Kids program at Penn State’s Cafe Laura in 2011. CDT file photo

As board members and staff of the Centre Learning Community Charter School, we felt it appropriate to respond to David Hutchinson’s July 8 op-ed. We agree with Hutchinson that state policies in the area of school choice may not meet the hope of significant innovation in the current system. Still, to call charter schools merely an experiment is simplistic, as it does not do justice to successful charter schools like CLC.

Central to this argument over school choice and charter schools is money. If you are a parent with sufficient resources, you can afford a private education. But if you are not a parent with means and are unhappy with your current school, what options do you have? With the charter movement, we have many options now, as Hutchinson points out, some good, some not so good. We are always concerned when money becomes more important than learning and agree that policies can improve the situation. For example, legislation should rein in lobbying and advertising expenditures when they are out of balance with the rest of the budget.

Characterizing charter schools as having been hijacked by poor policy may be motivated not by wanting better policy but by wanting more financially friendly policies for the sending districts. We would very much like to see the balance of the debate focus on kids and learning rather than money and finances. Interestingly, the discourse of charter school reform centers on the “savings to public school districts or the state” while ignoring the “costs” to charter school students. One should not include the former without addressing the latter.

It is important to realize that not all charter schools are the same. CLC was one of the first charter schools in the state and has a clear focus on a small middle school experience with emphasis on technology and project-based learning. We have no interest in increasing enrollments at CLC, which is a sure sign that we do not put profit and money above children and learning. We encourage Hutchinson to reconsider painting the movement with a broad brush and insinuating that all charter schools (brick and mortar and cyber) are the same — with a profit motivation.

Oversight of charter schools can be a tricky issue. Throughout its history, CLC has consistently undergone extensive state and federal oversight including regular auditor general and special education audits. CLC has met or exceeded standards such as adequate yearly progress, Pennsylvania System of School Assessment and other measures that are equal to the parent districts from which CLC draws. Oversight by the parent districts, which have a financial conflict of interest, will likely discourage choice and innovation. At CLC, oversight from those entities with no financial conflicts of interest is taken very seriously. Oversight by those entities that have a financial interest in shutting down charters is too clearly putting money ahead of education, and we oppose that.

Nevertheless, it is important to note that CLC is transparent in our finances and procedures. We have open board meetings and our minutes are available for review. We follow Sunshine Laws and our budgets are open documents. We stand ready to share requested information that is useful to further understand the way that our school operates CLC’s financial information is available to the public on the state Department of Education’s website. In addition, CLC conducts an independent financial audit every year and provides results to the State College Area School District and PDE through its annual report, which is also a public document and available on PDE’s website.

We agree with Hutchinson that “cherry picking” students who somehow make the school more money is a terrible practice and if it is happening, should be addressed through legislation. We are able to assure taxpayers and our community that this is not the case at CLC, where a lottery determines our student body.

We take issue with the notion that charter schools’ special education programs provide them with “$200 million profit, at taxpayer expense.” At CLC, a special education student receives the same services as a traditional student. That includes two teachers in every classroom, laptops, ipads, Smartboards and innovative curriculum, with additional funding for the special education student being used to provide specialists, psychologists and a modified curriculum.

In terms of the “double dipping” in the retirement funds, we agree with Hutchinson’s concern, and while we recognize that it has an impact on our budget, we are not opposed to an equitable solution. When we see something that seems unjust or unfair to our parent district, we support reform. We see our parent districts as partners and not as opponents or competitors in the learning goals for the community. However, it is important to note that Hutchinson calls charter schools “for-profit”… As IRS 501(c)(3) nonprofit public schools, charter schools are not allowed to make profits. It is true that some charter schools do move money around in ways that are problematic and end up creating profits for their too-closely-tied curriculum corporations or educational management companies. Focusing on eliminating such practices would be good legislation.

We need educational policies that encourage innovation. We need a more differentiated view of charter schools because they vary considerably and shouldn’t be considered as a single monolithic group. We need oversight of charters that is not motivated by conflicting financial or political interests. We need careful, measured, reasonable approaches that do not undermine our public school system. It is important to remember that in Pennsylvania, charter schools are public schools and are not seeking to undermine themselves as public schools. We need to shift the focus from money onto student learning. At CLC we seek to provide excellent learning every day and support learning-focused policy reform to encourage charter schools and traditional schools to perform at their best for all students in the commonwealth.