With battle lines drawn, is there a way to ‘Yes’ on charter school reform? | John L. Micek

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)

If you’re looking for the perfect example of the tribalism that too often devours our politics, you don’t have to look much further than Pennsylvania’s two-decade-plus-old argument over charter schools.

To public education advocates, charters are unaccountable, underperforming schools, run by profiteers who siphon money out of struggling, mostly urban school districts, leaving hollowed out school buildings in their wake.

To charter allies, meanwhile, the public education establishment is an adversary that prioritizes protecting its prerogatives over what’s best for students, dooming them to an education determined by their zip code, rather than what their parents believe is best for them.

That depth of feeling is understandable. There are few matters of public policy that elicit more deeply personal reactions and passionate opinions than the choices we make about educating our children.

Charter advocates have been pushing back — hard — against Gov. Tom Wolf’s recent round of executive actions attempting to reform the state’s more than 180 brick-and-mortar charters and 15 or so cyber-charter schools.

They’ve argued, among other things, that the York County Democrat is in the pocket of the teachers’ unions, and hasn’t evinced any interest in holding public schools to the same accountability standards he wants to impose on charters.

The former argument rings hollow. The latter — that public schools aren’t already being held to strict accountability standards — isn’t true. The debate around teacher evaluation standards, as a metric of accountability, is evidence enough of that.

Yes, it’s true that Wolf accepted contributions from, and support by, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, among other labor organizations, during his two campaigns for governor in 2014 and 2018.

But it’s equally true that two of the Legislature’s biggest charter advocates — House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, and Sen. John DiSanto, R-Dauphin — each have benefited from the largess of deep-pocketed, pro-charter donors and organizations, such as Excellent Schools PA and Students First PAC, which is almost entirely funded by a trio of wealthy donors from Bala Cynwyd, Montgomery County.

So that’s a nonstarter. Money, as distasteful as it is, is a part of politics. And politicians of all stripes invariably feel the pressure of their supporters and backers. Until, or unless, that changes, there’s blame enough to go around.

In any event, it’s a deflection from a larger truth: Pennsylvania’s charter school law, which first went on the books in 1997, is badly in need of a tune-up, riddled as it is with transparency and accountability problems. In 2016, in fact, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale called Pennsylvania’s statute “the worst charter school law in the United States.”

There is agreement, generally, that funding for charter schools, which annually receive a staggering $1.8 billion in in taxpayer money and enroll around 140,000 students statewide, has reached a “crisis point,” according to one veteran lawmaker.

Wolf’s round of executive actions, which impose greater regulations and accountability on charters, are “an indication of the seriousness of the concerns for the current funding of public charter and cyber charter schools and its effect on overall public school finance in Pennsylvania,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, said in a statement.

“It has reached a crisis point creating the potential of significant detrimental effects on all of our students’ progress in school,” Browne’s statement continued.

There’s certainly a discussion to be had here. The problem is getting to yes when every debate, it seems, degenerates into a turf war, marked by a flurry of blame-shifting and finger-pointing, as was the case during a particularly tense confrontation between public school supporters and charter advocates in the Capitol in June.

Pennsylvania’s charter system started off with the noble intent of jump-starting innovation and offering families alternatives to traditional public systems. That’s still a laudable goal.

But 22 years down the road, it now sounds better in theory than in practice.

Charter schools, as staff reporter Elizabeth Hardison previously wrote, have been criticized for cherry-picking their students by dissuading certain young people, such as those with with disabilities, limited English language skills, or those with behavioral problems, from applying. Charter school officials deny this is the case, pointing out such practices are illegal.  But critics maintain that charters still find ways to limit their student populations.

Charter proponents, it often seems, want all the benefits of taxpayer support without the intense scrutiny that comes with it. The boards that oversee charters, for instance, are appointed and not elected. That makes them more answerable to the private entities that control the schools than to parents and other community stakeholders, even as their share of taxpayer funds has steadily increased over the last few years.

And there’s some indication that not all of that money is getting to students.

A 2016 study by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, which represents locally elected public school board members, found that administrative budgets at charter schools are nearly double those in traditional public schools. Their top executives also earn far more than their traditional public school counterparts, the report found.

As Hardison reported,Among other measures, Wolf’s plan will limit enrollment in underperforming cyber charter schools, subject charter school boards to new ethics requirements, and create a fee-based model to recoup the money the state Department of Education spends administering the charter school law.

Those are some good first steps to imposing order and there’s room for both charters and traditional public schools to find common ground. Their first priority —and this seems to be lost in the debate — is making sure Pennsylvania’s children get a top-flight education, regardless of the path they take to obtaining it.

An award-winning political journalist with more than 25 years' experience in the news business, John L. Micek is The Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. Before joining The Capital-Star, Micek spent six years as Opinion Editor at PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., where he helped shape and lead a multiple-award-winning Opinion section for one of Pennsylvania's most-visited news websites. Prior to that, he spent 13 years covering Pennsylvania government and politics for The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa. His career has also included stints covering Congress, Chicago City Hall and more municipal meetings than he could ever count, Micek contributes regular analysis and commentary to a host of broadcast outlets, including CTV-News in Canada and talkRadio in London, U.K., as well as "Face the State" on CBS-21 in Harrisburg, Pa.; "Pennsylvania Newsmakers" on WGAL-8 in Lancaster, Pa., and the Pennsylvania Cable Network. His weekly column on American politics is syndicated nationwide to more than 800 newspapers by Cagle Syndicate.

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