Don't lump brick-and-mortar charters with bad cyber schools | Perspective

A new study by Public Citizens for Children and Youth takes a highly critical view of the performance of cyber charter schools and broadly characterizes suburban brick-and-mortar charters as underperforming as well.

But PCCY’s report, primarily using information from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, interprets the data without a full understanding of its sources, which leads to an incorrect conclusion. Reviewing the data with an understanding of where these numbers come from reveals a better picture of Philadelphia’s suburban brick-and-mortar charter schools.

An Inquirer article (“Charters rise in suburbs; results mixed,” March 15) summarized PCCY’s report as saying, “Half the suburban charter schools in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties fared worse on state tests in the 2015-16 school year than districts with similar shares of disadvantaged students.”

The clause “with similar shares of disadvantaged students” is a problem, because the number of “disadvantaged” children reported by the state Department of Education is unreliable.

Many charter schools do not have a precise source of data on household income. They determine whether a child is “disadvantaged” through information that is volunteered by the students’ parents. These schools have no access to tax or financial records. Also, the guidelines for exactly what information to collect are muddled. Pennsylvania’s current criteria differ from federal guidelines.

The disadvantaged numbers are not a scientific collection of statistical data and should not be used as the basis for future educational policy.

Furthermore, it’s worth remembering that charter schools do not select their students. By law, the grounds for selection must be a blind lottery. Parents are the primary party with control over enrollment; they select the school.

If we review the PCCY report’s supporting documentation and put less emphasis on the “disadvantaged” data, a different story emerges, which is that a majority of the region’s charter schools are outperforming their local districts.

Of the 11 suburban charters in the region, Bucks County Montessori, Chester Charter School for the Arts, Renaissance Academy, School Lane Charter School, Souderton Charter School Collaborative, and Widener Partnership Charter School outperformed school districts from which their students are drawn. The numbers are not just higher, they are a lot higher.

Bucks County Montessori and Souderton Collaborative both scored more than 15 percentage points higher than their local school districts. These schools consistently achieve top marks when compared to traditional public schools across the state as well.

PCCY has worked on many good causes since its founding in 1980, including with teen pregnancy, children’s health insurance, and child advocacy. This charter school report, however, has significant flaws. The report paints a gloomy picture. The data, however, tell a brighter story.

For 20 years, dedicated charter school teachers and leaders in this region have seized on the opportunity that charter school legislation has provided to try new ideas and expand the possibilities in public education. We need to embrace their hard-won successes and look to them to lead the way forward.

John Page is a member of the board of the Souderton Charter School Collaborative (john@johnpage.net)