Charter Schools in Pennsylvania

HB 530, another bill whose intentions are to improve the state’s current charter school situation and progress school choice so that each student has a fair chance at a quality education. The original intentions of Congress in creating charter school legislation were optimistic. Pennsylvania’s passing of Senate Bill No. 123 in 1997 allowed the establishment of charter schools throughout the state. These schools were to be run independently from local school boards, and instead as “non-profit, nonsectarian entities by teachers, parents, institutions of higher education or museums” (Department of Education, 1997). However, with issues pertaining to relationships with public schools, accountability, and ambiguous data reporting, among other things, the true accomplishments of this innovative approach are not as transparent as supporters may have hoped. These schools were proposed to be “educational laboratories” where teachers with the “freedom to innovate” would increase student achievement and “stimulate improvements in best practices and competition” (PCCY, 2011, p. 1). The freedom given within these schools is often what led to many of the issues present in the charter school movement of the United States, and Pennsylvania, today.

Choice was a definitive term associated with the construction of charter schools. Their foundation was rooted in allowing educational alternatives to traditional public schools, while also discovering new pedagogical and curricular approaches. From the familial perspective, charter schools were created to give parents the choice of sending their children to schools that provide an “educational approach that best serves their children’s needs” (Slody, 2003, p. 289). Unfortunately, evidence of the types of innovative institutions that charter school proponents had been expecting rarely exists. In fact, a number of studies conducted on charters, including a policy report by Arsen, Plank, and Sykes (1999) “found little difference in charter school practices from those of traditional public schools” (p. 319).

The funding formula conflict is not only present in Pennsylvania, but is a common problem for most states in which charter laws exist. Charter schools are competing against traditional public schools for students and the funding that accompanies them. A 2011 budget cut in Philadelphia created hostility when similar funds removed from local school districts were held intact in the local charter schools, due to state mandates (PCCY, 2011, p. 3). Not only were per-pupil costs in local districts cut by more than $500 per student, but also full-day kindergarten programs were cut as well as the laying off of teaching and support staff, all problems that were not burdened onto charter schools (PCCY, 2011). Representative Mike Reese’s proposition to improve the funding formula could potentially lead to a more viable system of school choice.

Pennsylvania’s own traditional public schools struggle financially, as funds continue to be given to charter schools. A 2012 article by The New York Times focusing on the Chester Upland School District mentioned the $20 million in debt the district has accrued, partly due to of charter schools “taking up far too much of its fair share of resources” (As cited in Radical Teacher, 2012). Luckily for traditional public schools, Pennsylvania mandates that the per-pupil funding for maintenance and expenditures remain within the local district. However, in order to compensate for lack of expenditure funds, charters sometimes “secure some of their facilities money from their per-pupil operating funds” (PCCY, 2011, p. 4). HB 530 would result in an annual savings of over $20 million to school districts and taxpayers after making the appropriate deductions from per-pupil expenditures (HB 530, 2015).

While charter schools are still providing students with education, there are significant issues that prevent these institutions from fulfilling their original mission. Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY) have outlined a number of proposals to assist the state of Pennsylvania in fulfilling many of the charter school goals that have not been carried out successfully. Among these recommendations includes the improvement of relationships between charter schools and the local school districts. Poor communication between the two kinds of schools creates a barrier. Charter schools are not sharing the “best practice” methods that they were intended to develop in an effort to provide students with innovative practices that formed as a result of collaboration. Ravitch (2010) expresses the importance of the partnership between the two schools in stating, “charter schools should be valued partners of traditional public schools” (p. 224). By sharing best practices, schools can “improve student learning for “all children,”” as set forth in the charter school law of Pennsylvania (PCCY, 2011, p. 10).

Another suggestion put forth by the PCCY (2011) is to “develop a strong, fair and consistent authorizing and oversight body or bodies” (p. 2). The lack of reputable and trustworthy governing bodies within the charter school system is not a problem only found in Pennsylvania. The problem often present in charter school administration is the lack of clear roles, and therefore indecisiveness concerning where accountability is to be placed. The responsibilities of “achieving measurable goals, fiscal accountability, and fairness and morality” are all important factors to be taken into account. Yet, often the question remains as to whom within the charter school is responsible for its enforcement.

First, charter schools are not subject to many of the same guidelines as traditional public schools. Therefore, the responsibility for collection of achievement data of students lies solely on the charter school itself, rather than higher authority enforcing the rules. As for fiscal accountability, Knaak and Knaak (2013) point out the poor financial decisions made by charter schools, mostly discussing the embezzlement that occurs. The Week magazine published an article discussing charter schools and highlighted an investigation in Pennsylvania into two separate head administrators of unrelated schools (as cited in Knaak and Knaak, 2013). In the first case the person in question had family members on the payroll and “made purchases from companies he owned” (Knaak and Knaak, 2013). The second case consisted of millions of dollars being used towards unnecessary expenses, including high salaries for administration.

Charter schools receive a lot of attention in the media, specifically with reference to student performance in comparison to traditional public schools. However, as with a lot of data, the research needs to take into consideration the underlying biases. Research showing higher scores for students in charter schools exists, as does higher scores for traditional public schools. While these statistics often provide achievement scores, they also fail to include the innovative approaches that are present or absent in either type of school. The charter school law of Pennsylvania entails “requirements for on-going access to records and facilities of the charter school and for an evaluation of charter schools by an independent consultant after five years” (Department of Education, 1997). Charter schools lack a standard of measurement, leaving data results hard to interpret. If charter schools continue to fail to provide data on their students’ overall achievement, a consequence may be the use of standardized assessment methods.

While charter schools were established with valiant intentions, a number of successful charter schools have been presented in literature, from which Pennsylvania could gain some insight. Preston, et al. (2012) defines innovation in charter schools within “its use of a practice if the traditional public schools in its local district are not using that practice” (p. 318). Charter schools cannot be innovative in and of itself. They are not simply innovative because of their creation; they need to show initiative and provide something groundbreaking besides just offering an alternative learning institution. Schools such as District 4 in East Harlem and City Academy High School take approaches that are unlikely to be associated with traditional public schools, and show innovative efforts.

The schools in East Harlem manage to provide career-driven education to a large population of students. Although this district is not a charter school, it possesses autonomy, which is a main component of charter schools. Rather than placing students in schools based on their zip code, the administrative board chose to separate schools by vocational subjects. These include communication, health sciences, and environmental science among many other subjects (Chubb and Moe, 1990, p. 214). Unfortunately, the vast array of school choices leads to an admission process that may lead to students getting their second or third choice. The nearly 45% increase in reading scores for students in a poor area over a 14 year period depicts that true innovation can lead to academic achievement (Chubb and Moe, 1990, p. 214).

City Academy High School, the nation’s first charter school, foreshadowed what could have been: to help disadvantaged students who were unsuccessful in traditional public schools. City Academy also provided additional resources to help them succeed beyond academics such as counseling, social services, and job skills training (Ravitch, 2010, p. 131). Despite the accomplishments of the school and the improvement of the population it was serving, the school was not providing many innovative techniques. If each exemplary school lacks where the other exceeds, and vice versa, creating schools that combine multiple progressive techniques should be the key goal in charter school formation.

Another alternative to the conservative approaches being taken by established charter schools would be to provide an initial outline of thorough guidelines and measurable goals during the application process. Ausbrooks, et al. (2005) conducted a study on charter law in Texas and found that requirements for “open-enrollment charter schools must address how the school plans to encourage innovation” (as cited in Preston, et al., 2012, p. 319). The Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE) instead believed that the future of charter schools lies in testing what those in the public school want, but are unable to implement due to lack of autonomy. Following an announcement by President Clinton of a $100 million donation in support of charter schools, the CPRE issued a study in specific areas in which charter schools must begin to thrive, such as “a clear and specific school mission, involvement of key stakeholders in creating the vision, a well- articulated and integrated instructional program linked to the mission, a sense of collective responsibility among staff members for teaching and learning, a consistent professional-development program, the development of formal structures for staff collaboration, and a dynamic program that keeps evolving” (The Education Digest, 1997, p. 72).

Although charter schools seek autonomy as a key component of their mission for discovering educational innovation, collaboration among districts and states should be formed to create a larger community of groundbreaking theory. With each participating state having its own charter law, and within that state having very little communication with surrounding schools, the different schools are unable to discuss with one another their ideas and hopes for what they wish could be accomplished in their own classroom. In addition, charter schools should be given assistance to develop data reporting measures, which must become consistent among all schools. If charter schools in Pennsylvania become more reputable in their accountability and data reporting, and become liaisons of the community to find out what parents hope their children will gain, the charter school system could become a source of hope and alternative to low-performing public schools. Although HB 530 aims to address most of the issues currently facing charter schools, it lacks the collaboration component needed to promote innovativeness, a principle on which charter schools were founded.

 

 

 

References

 

Anonymous. (1997). Charter schools. The Education Digest, 63(3), 72.

Chubb, J.E. & Moe, T. M. (1990). Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools.

Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution.

CREDO. (2011). Charter School Performance in Pennsylvania. Stanford, C.A.

Department of Education. (1997). Charter School Legislation (Senate Bill No. 123). Harrisburg, P.A.: Charter Schools Office.

HB530. (2015). Retrieved from: http://www.legis.state.pa.us/cfdocs/billinfo/billinfo.cfm?syear=2015&sind=0&body=H&type=B&bn=530

Knaak, W.C. & Knaak, J.T. (2013). Charter Schools: Educational Reform or Failed Initiative?. Education Paradigm Shifts 79(4), 45-52.

 

n.a. (2013). Education reform and charter schools. Radical Teacher, 94, p. 75.

 

Preston, C., Goldring, E., Berends, M. & Cannata, M. (2012). School innovation in district context: Comparing traditional public schools and charter schools. Economics of Education Review 31, 318-330.

 

Public Citizens for Children and Youth. (2011). Pennsylvania Charter School Law. Philadelphia, P.A.: No Author.

 

Ravitch, D. (2010). Death and Life of the Great American School System. New York, N.Y.: Basic Books. [E-Book].

Slody, A.C. (2003). Boyertown Area School District v. Department of Education: charter school law? A confusing piece of legislation. Widener Law Journal, 12(2), 289-305.

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