Since 1997, Pennsylvania has offered charter schools as an additional educational choice for parents. Both pro-charter and pro-traditional public school advocates say the law is overdue for reform. Since last week was National School Choice Week, we asked education thinkers, teachers, and experts to outline how they would rewrite the charter law.

Sharif El-Mekki, principal of Mastery Charter School, Shoemaker Campus.
DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Sharif El-Mekki, principal of Mastery Charter School, Shoemaker Campus.

Hold charters accountable

While last week was National School Choice Week, we know that black families recognize every week as the week they would prefer to choose a school for their children – not one mandated because of a zip code.

In 1997, when Pennsylvania joined the ranks of states offering more choice for families, the goals were to improve pupil learning, to increase learning opportunities for all pupils, to provide parents and pupils with expanded choices, and to hold these new charter schools accountable for meeting measurable academic standards and provide the school with a method to establish accountability systems.

While there are several things that need to be changed about the current charter law, nothing is more important than more state oversight to monitor students’ achievement levels in our charter schools (and all schools).

However, it is not clear how the state holds charter schools accountable for student outcomes. While financial solvency is important, it should not be the sole issue that warrants accountability from the state.

There needs to be more clarity in accountability. The state conveniently punted accountability for charters to the districts in which they reside, as if they don’t care to be bothered with the oversight of the educations of hundreds of thousands of black, brown, and poor children across the state. And, while the district has criteria for reauthorization, school district schools aren’t held to the same standard. If the charter reauthorization guidelines implemented by our district were applied to neighborhood schools, most would be shuttered.

There is no clearer example of this than the performance of cyber charters. Many of them are absolutely horrific. And, the state does little to nothing to hold them accountable.

As the crafter of the charter law, the state is responsible for supporting charters to meet a transparent and high bar. It is bewildering that currently the state has no formal evaluation of charter-school programming and the outcomes they have.

Pennsylvania should have clear targets that parents, students, school leadership, and the community at large can use to determine what is being promised and delivered by all charters.

If the state was clearer about what these expectations should be, it could hold all schools accountable – cyber charters, brick-and-mortar charters, as well as traditional schools. And, so could we. — Sharif El-Mekki, principal at Mastery Charter School-Shoemaker Campus

Donna Cooper, Executive Director of the Public Citizens for Children & Youth.
Avi Steinhardt/ For the Inquirer
Donna Cooper, Executive Director of the Public Citizens for Children & Youth.

Get the best teachers

Shockingly, charter elementary schools with student enrollments similar to district-run elementary schools aren’t making the grade. Like district-run schools, none of these charters have even 50 percent of their kids reading on grade level by fourth grade. After more than 20 years of this social experiment, one thing is clear: The promise of charter schools just hasn’t panned out because they can’t escape the obstacles district-run schools face.

With reasonable levels of funding, all of our schools could pick and choose among the most talented new educators in the nation by offering the salaries that would attract and retain them. Moreover, with adequate funding, the district and charters could offer intensive training and coaching to compensate for the vagaries of our current teacher training system that fails to prepare educators for the realities of today’s classrooms or better cater to the specialized learning needs of our highly stressed students.

Put simply, for schools of all types to succeed, an overhaul of how we train teachers is needed. It’s difficult to assess whether it’s harder to reform the ivory tower of our colleges of education or pass a reformed charter-school law backed by adequate funds. Doing one or only two of these reforms will simply mean in 20 years we will be wondering once more why charter schools didn’t work. Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth

State Rep. Jordan Harris.
State Rep. Jordan Harris.

Streamline the process

The most critical update we must make is to ensure charter operations are ethical and transparent. While most charter schools open to provide a quality education for students, a few bad actors have cropped up in recent years tainting the reputation of charter schools. Updating our ethics and transparency requirements for charter leaders and requiring training for board members will ensure that only those operating for the benefit of students are involved.

Furthermore, we need to streamline the charter application process. As it stands now, local school districts are the only authorizers of brick-and-mortar charter schools. With 500 unique districts across the commonwealth, there are many differences in application requirements. Implementing standard application and timeline requirements for review of applications and appeals would ensure a timely review that’s fair to all sides.

An independent authorizer, with taxpayer oversight for accountability, could help correct both these issues.

At the end of the day, our goal is creating excellent schools, be they public or charter, to ensure our children get the high-quality education they deserve. We need to encourage expansion of schools with a track record of providing a quality education while correcting schools that aren’t performing at the level they should be. — State Rep. Jordan Harris, Pennsylvania Democratic whip

David Hardy, founder and former CEO.
David Hardy, founder and former CEO.

Assign an independent authorizer

All sides agree that the Pennsylvania charter-school law needs changing. Our top priority should be to amend the law to allow for the authorization of charters by entities other than the school district. The current authorizing structure pits the (self) interests of a school district against the likely educational improvement a new charter school can offer. In Philadelphia, charters represent the largest segment of educational opportunity available for African American and Latino children, who are too often otherwise stranded in failing district schools.

The original charter law was not perfect. But the provision that put the fate of new charters in the hands of the local school district produced an immediately hostile relationship.

In Philadelphia, where the district is burdened with large, violent middle and high schools and an academic program that most felt was deficient, the problems were exacerbated. Schools in black and brown communities were particularly challenged and lost confidence in a district that could not or would not provide improvements. Enter the new, nimble, and hungry charter schools. The net result has been a clear positive for those communities. Charters have offered these students a better opportunity to be in a safe, orderly learning environment and this has resulted in improved academic results and postsecondary achievement.

We need an independent authorizer, possibly following the lead of other states that allow colleges and universities to fill that role -- and could act decisively to close underperforming charters while supporting the growth of successful ones. And it will address the demands of the thousands of parents desperate for an educational opportunity that will deliver, at last, a value proposition. David P. Hardy, senior adviser at Excellent Schools PA

Lisa Haver, Alliance for Public Schools.
Lisa Haver, Alliance for Public Schools.

Put public first

Pennsylvania’s charter law was written to benefit charter operators and investors. It has opened the door to 22 years of unbridled charter expansion, but its few requirements for accountability have led to frequent misuse of taxpayer funds. Harrisburg must revise the law to put the interests of the public first. If charters are really public schools, as they claim to be, then the law must mandate full transparency of all financial, academic, and organization information. While the charter law allows districts to monitor the finances of the school itself, it does not allow them to follow the money to the real estate companies, charter management corporations, consultants, law firms, nonprofits, and community development corporations who reap the financial benefits of circular management agreements and real estate deals in which charters become both landlord and tenant.

A significant revision of the law would also permit every district to set a cap on charters’ administrative costs. Twelve Philadelphia charter CEOs, most managing just one school, are paid over $200,000 a year in salary and other compensation; two actually make more than Superintendent William Hite, who manages over 200 schools. A 2014 analysis by the Philadelphia City Controller’s Office found that the average charter school spends more than twice as much on administrative costs as the district.

Philadelphia’s new Board of Education must begin to shut down charters that fail to meet standards year after year.

Charters have sold themselves as the high-quality alternative to struggling district schools. If charters don’t meet standards, they should not be renewed. — Lisa Haver, retired Philadelphia teacher and cofounder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools

Samuel Reed, founding educator of the U School.
Handout
Samuel Reed, founding educator of the U School.

Unfracture the landscape

The steady growth of charter schools in Philadelphia and across the region has created a fractured educational landscape. Like it or not, charter schools are a part of our permanent education ecosystem. If I were able to rewrite the charter laws, I would frame the policy to address the paradox of choice. Unfortunately, more school choice is less choice, particularly when the application and acceptance process creates hoops and hurdles for entry.

I’m a 20-year veteran educator and parent of students who attended traditional public and charter schools. My solutions for addressing the challenges of real choice and equity: Incubate choice within the existing public schools. Eliminate barriers to entry. Fund charter schools not at the expense of existing public schools. Ensure equable accountability measures for both charter and traditional public schools.

To prevent the further fracturing and polarization of traditional public and charter schools, I suggest that a diverse task force of parents, educators, students, administrators, and policymakers develop sustainable “real choice” for the next 20 years and beyond. Samuel Reed, founding educator of the U School