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Public charter school reform is needed for students, not the education system

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  • harrisburg
    Kevin McCorry/WHYY

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As the public charter school reform debate gets under way in the state Capitol, traditional public education establishment organizations, and their supporters, continue to spread misinformation about public charter schools in order to skew the public’s opinion of public school choice.

Fortunately, publicly available data shows that public brick-and-mortar charter schools have a track record of providing high-quality educational programs and services to their students.

While there are a small number of poorly managed and low-performing public charter schools – which should be shut down – the overwhelming majority of public charter schools are overseen and operated by board members, administrators and educators who are honest, hard-working public officials and employees dedicated to providing their students with a high-quality education. Unfortunately, every sector – public and private – has its share of bad actors who cast a negative light on their entire community.

Are reforms needed for public charter schools? Yes, but not for the reasons anti-charter school advocates would have the public believe.

Contrary to popular belief, charter schools, which are public schools funded with taxpayer dollars, are required to follow the same state and federal education, transparency and accountability laws and regulations that apply to school districts, and do not receive any special exemptions or treatment. Public charter schools are not permitted to pick and choose their students. They must use a lottery system for enrollment. In fact, publicly available data shows that public charter schools also enroll and educate students with disabilities.

Like school districts, public charter schools are expected to manage their budgets and operations for the benefit of students. Public charter schools are required to complete an annual, independent audit; file their annual budget and annual financial reports with the state Department of Education; and adhere to the requirements of the Right to Know Law and Sunshine Act, including conducting their board meetings in public and providing the public the opportunity to offer comments during these meetings.

The Keystone Alliance supports changes to Pennsylvania’s Charter School Law to ensure that public charter school students receive the same funding as their peers in traditional public schools. Unfortunately, under current law, public charter school students receive 25 percent less funding than their peers who attend school districts.

While the discrepancy in charter school funding varies from school to school, the statewide average revenue school districts receive is $17,350 per student, while the statewide average revenue public charter schools receive is $13,000 per student. Students who attend a traditional public school each receive $4,350 in more funding than their peers in public charter schools. Where is the equity?

Public charter schools enroll nearly 8 percent of all public school students in Pennsylvania but account for only 6 percent of total public school spending.

Furthermore, public charter schools, unlike school districts, receive no funding or reimbursement for their facility and capital expenses. Thus, public charter schools are educating their students at a lower cost than school districts.

Over the last several years, the relationship between public charter schools and school districts has deteriorated. These relationships have become so strained that, in communities where public charter schools are in high demand, school districts refuse to authorize the opening of a new charter school or put into place burdensome requirements that shortchange students and deny families their right to public school choice.

There are many communities throughout Pennsylvania in which school districts fail to meet the needs of their students and refuse to change course. In fact, in some areas, the local school district has failed generations of students without being held accountable. Public charter schools serve as high-quality public school alternatives that have rescued thousands of students from low-performing school districts and have given students the ability to learn in a safe and secure environment.

Public charter schools should not be viewed as the enemy. Instead they should be applauded for their ability to turn around the lives of thousands of students who otherwise would be forced to remain in a school district where their needs fall through the cracks and never receive the education that taxpayers fund.

Instead of traditional public education establishment organizations and school districts constantly demeaning and chastising public charter schools, perhaps they should look internally to understand why so many students are fleeing their schools in favor of public charter schools. They may just learn why public charter schools are thriving and why students and families demand public school choice.

 

Tim Eller is executive director of the Keystone Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

 
 

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