Pa. charter schools struggling; more oversight needed, report says

A new report by Public Citizens for Children and Youth examines the charter school landscape in Pennsylvania.

Many Pennsylvania charter schools are lackluster, and the law that governs them is among the nation’s worst.

So says a report to be released Thursday by Public Citizens for Children and Youth, the Philadelphia-based child-advocacy organization. The analysis concluded that despite often being seen by parents as having stronger schools than traditional public schools, the charter sector typically underperforms when compared with such schools.

The Inquirer and Daily News reviewed “Expanding High Quality Charter School Options: Strong Charter School Legislation Matters,” the report scheduled to be discussed Thursday by a panel of local and national charter experts in the city.

“Charter school students are not outperforming their traditional school peers; results are mixed at best and extremely subpar at worst,” the report concludes. “Passing stronger legislation to link growth and charter renewal to student performance will encourage schools to strive for better student outcomes.”

Charters are funded with public money, but run independently. In Pennsylvania, they are authorized and overseen by local school boards.

Pennsylvania’s current charter law, the report said, hurts the 132,800 students in brick-and-mortar and cyber charters statewide, lacks adequate oversight, and does not allow ample opportunity for strong charters to expand easily.

Eugene DePasquale, Pennsylvania’s auditor general, has called the charter law “simply the worst charter school law in the United States.”

Statewide, 63 percent of traditional public schoolchildren in third through eighth grades met state standards in reading as measured via state standardized tests; 42 percent of charter school pupils did so. In math, 45 percent of traditional public schoolchildren hit the mark, vs. 21 percent of charter school students.

In districts like Philadelphia, where more than 10 percent of public school students attend charter schools, traditional public school students scored better in math, and charter school students tested better in reading. For all “historically underperforming students” – defined by the state as children who either require special education services, are poor, or are learning English — students fared better in district schools, with 43 percent meeting standards in reading and 27 percent in math. Such students in Pennsylvania charters scored 34 percent in reading and 14 percent in math.

The report also examined how charters and districts fare under the state’s school-performance tool. The “School Performance Profile” uses test scores, graduation, and promotion rates and attendance to grade schools. Schools that score 70 or above are considered “good” schools.

Statewide, 21 percent of Pennsylvania’s charters scored 70 or above, while 54 percent of traditional district schools hit that mark. (The state’s cyber charters performed especially poorly, with none scoring 70 or above.)

And while charter performance is uneven, charter costs keep rising – in 2016, the state’s public districts spent $1.5 billion to run charters. When children leave traditional public schools for charters, districts are unable to shed the entire costs of educating those students because they must still pay teachers, heat buildings, among other things.  Recent research indicates that Philadelphia, for example, has $8,125 in “stranded costs”  when each district student leaves for a charter school the first year, and $4,433 by year five.

The bottom line, PCCY says, is that charter reform must happen soon. A bill up for consideration by the state House does offer charter changes, but “it is not ready for prime time,” said Tomea Sippio-Smith, PCCY’s education policy director. “We’re not saying that any revision is a step in the right direction. It needs to be the right revision.”

The Center for Education Reform, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and National Association of Charter School Authorizers, all pro-charter organizations, have concluded that Pennsylvania’s law is problematic, with inadequate accountability provisions. The law makes it too hard for good schools to grow and too difficult to close the worst schools.

Charters are a hot-button issue in education, with proponents strongly advocating for the innovation and choices for families charters were supposed to provide, and detractors saying the schools siphon off public dollars and detract from traditional public schools. PCCY characterizes itself as neither pro- nor anti-charter.

“We believe that high-quality charters should exist,” Sippio-Smith said. “If they provide a good education for students, we believe there’s a place for them.”

The organization did call for a moratorium on new Philadelphia charters in 2015, but that was situational, it said, given the district’s finances and the quality of the new charter applicants that year. It has also called for a moratorium on cyber charters in the past.

Pennsylvania’s charter law has been around since 1997, when its charters were granted. There are now 179 across the commonwealth, with 84 in Philadelphia and several more in its suburbs. Since the first wave of charters in the late 1990s, a number of states across the U.S. have strengthened their charter laws.

PCCY calls for a new charter law to make it easier to define and expand good schools and weed out bad ones. It wants a standard application for would-be charters, and extensive background checks for their leaders. It wants a clear process for renewing charters that are performing relatively well but do not meet the high-quality definition. It wants charter schools to have predictable guidelines for periodic reviews.

“If other states can do this,” Sippio-Smith said, “then Pennsylvania can do this.”

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