Update Pa’s charter school law to foster innovation, bolster accountability | Opinion

Nathan Mains of the Pa. School Boards Association calls for charter school funding reform during a Capitol rally on 4./29/19 (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

By Susan L. DeJarnatt

I support Gov. Tom Wolf’s call for reform to the charter school law, which is long overdue for an update in light of 20 years of experience with charter schools and their impact on the system of public education in the Commonwealth.

The public education system must serve the entire Commonwealth and belongs to all of us, not just the current parents of school age children.

Parental choice matters but it is not and cannot be the only factor driving decisions about charter schools. The proliferation of charter schools imposes real and significant costs on every school district in Pennsylvania and those costs cannot and should not be ignored.

The original justification for charters was that they would be innovative in exchange for accountability. We are failing on both sides of that exchange. The charter law needs to be updated to foster innovation and also to bolster accountability.

To protect the entire public education system, we need transparency in the application process for charters, in the operations of charters, and in the oversight of charters.

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We need to ensure that school districts have the explicit power to consider the impact of charter growth on all of the existing schools within the district. That consideration has to include financial impact and other impacts on existing schools when the district is considering whether to authorize a new charter, renew an existing charter, or expand enrollment in an existing charter.

The Legislature and the administration must look at the impact of market-based reforms on the district level to fully appreciate how such reforms affect the democratic goals of the public education system, including whether charter expansion is undercutting the ability of Pennsylvania school districts to provide a thorough and efficient education to all of their students.

In the application process, the authorizers should carefully consider how the proposed charter will add to the existing system of public education and not merely duplicate existing options.

For example, Philadelphia has many schools that provide a “no excuses” approach focused on strict discipline and traditional pedagogy. It does not have many schools that offer dual languages or target kids in institutionalized settings.

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The application should include information as to how the proposed school will innovate in ways that the existing charter options and the existing traditional public school options do not offer.

The applicant should also have to demonstrate how it will coordinate and partner with the traditional public schools in the district so it can serve the “laboratories of innovation” function that was intended by the original charter school law.

This kind of coordination and partnership should also be a consideration in the renewal process. The charter school should have to demonstrate what it has done to innovate and what it has done to share those innovations with its authorizing district.

A charter that has not accomplished either of these goals should not be renewed or should only be conditionally renewed.

Cyber-charters present unique challenges. Current law must be updated to recognize the cost difference between on-line education and operation of bricks and mortar schools so that cyber charters are reimbursed for the actual costs of the education they provide but do not receive windfalls.

The law must also be updated so that the districts that send students to cybers have some input into oversight of the schools.

Districts across Pennsylvania sent $454.7 million in tuition payments to cybers in 2016 but they have no role in authorizing these schools and no power to intervene where the cyber-school is failing to educate the students or misusing the funds.

Oversight at the state level must also be more rigorous to avoid the kind of criminal misuse of funds that happened in the case of Nick Trombetta and the PA Cyber School.

Pa Cyber is the largest cyber-charter in Pennsylvania. According to the tax forms it filed with the IRS, in 2016, it received $134,280,454 in tuition payments from school districts across Pennsylvania along with another $5,282,176 in “government funds.”

It spent almost half of those funds on “curriculum & managed services” provided by Lincoln Learning Solutions, $66,216,678. What did Lincoln do with that money?

What services did it provide to PA Cyber? One interesting thing Lincoln did was to give a grant of nearly $1.5 million to the Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School, a bricks and mortar charter school in Midland, Beaver County Pa.

Effectively, school districts across Pennsylvania are subsidizing a bricks-and-mortar charter school that they have no control over and their students have no access to. Is this fair or appropriate?

Pennsylvania has a constitutional obligation to provide a thorough and efficient system of public education to all its children. Reliance on market choice, whether through charter schools or vouchers, cannot be used to undercut that constitutional obligation.

Susan L. DeJarnatt is a professor at Temple University’s  Beasley School of Law. Her opinions here do not represent those of Temple University or the Beasley School of Law.