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Proposed charter legislation raises concerns

By Guest blogger on Aug 25, 2011 01:02 PM

This guest blog post comes from the Education Law Center.

New charter school bills before the General Assembly (SB 904 and HB 1348) would repeal Pennsylvania’s current charter school/cyber charter school law in its entirety. The charter school law would be replaced with language that permits the unfettered expansion of charter schools throughout the state, reduces accountability, and effectively removes all local control of charters, while continuing to redirect millions of dollars of public funding away from traditional public schools.

The Education Law Center has serious concerns and questions about this legislation and submitted written testimony to the Senate Education Committee members in advance of their Thursday, Aug. 25 hearing on SB 904. Here is a portion of the testimony:

The Education Law Center has worked statewide for over a decade on issues involving charter and cyber charter schools. We are the primary organization in Pennsylvania actively monitoring charter school performance and holding the schools accountable for compliance with the law. We have strong relationships with teachers and administrators in charter schools. We’ve counseled thousands of parents of students enrolled in or attempting to enroll in charter and cyber charter schools. We help protect the rights of these students, especially students learning English, students of color, students with disabilities, and children living in out-of-home care.

The Law Center believes that important reforms are needed for Pennsylvania’s system of charter and cyber charter schools. Unfortunately, Senate Bill 904 and similar legislation introduced in the House of Representatives do not include the reforms truly needed to strengthen the charter school system. Instead, these bills include changes that would greatly expand the number and size of charter schools, would replace the role of local school districts in approving and monitoring charter schools with a new state agency in Harrisburg, and would water down the accountability system for charter schools. This is the wrong approach.

Through our daily work, the Law Center sees examples of highly successful charter schools. But we also see many charter schools that violate the rights of children, fail to comply with basic state requirements, and achieve far less academic success than nearby district-run public schools. And statewide data show that the “traditional” public schools have a higher rate of successful reform and innovation, even in Philadelphia and other struggling school systems.

Here are a few examples of the most frequent problems with charter and cyber charter schools as reported to the Law Center’s offices. Parents call our offices because their children are being denied an education by charter and cyber charter schools in the following ways:

  • Charter and cyber charter schools often use the district-run public schools as a back-up system or a dumping ground for children they prefer not to serve. Some charter schools expel students for reasons that would never be viewed as a sufficient basis for expulsion from a district-run public school. In several cases we’ve handled, this occurs for students as early as kindergarten — one school attempted to permanently expel a 5-year-old. (We prevented this, but not without a court proceeding.)

  • Charter schools often avoid serving children with special needs who are challenging or costly, even though these children have as much a right to the benefits of charter schools as any other student. We have handled many cases where parents struggle to get their children accepted to a charter school. For example, some charter schools screen out children with disabilities and discourage their parents from applying for enrollment.

  • Charter schools “counsel out” students who are experiencing academic or behavioral difficulties, instead of providing the services needed to help these children stay in the charter school and succeed. In these situations, parents are sometimes told that the district-run public schools can better serve their children and are given a “choice” of a “voluntary withdrawal” or official expulsion.

The data collected by the Pennsylvania Department of Education confirms that many charter schools enroll significantly lower percentages of students with disabilities and English language learners than the school district in which they are located. And even so, charter and cyber charter schools often have lower academic performance than district-run public schools.

That’s why we believe charter school reform is necessary and why SB 904 and similar legislation introduced in the House of Representatives fail to address the real needs for reform.

The pending charter reform legislation misses the mark when it comes to addressing three crucial questions that should be answered before any bills are adopted:

  • Has the General Assembly performed the thorough research needed to objectively understand the strengths and weaknesses of the existing system of charter and cyber charter schools and drafted legislation that effectively meets the real needs for reform without undue political influence?

  • How have charter and cyber charter school students fared compared to students in local public schools?

  • How have charter and cyber charter schools improved educational opportunities and outcomes for the neediest students?

An independent study of Pennsylvania charter school performance by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes shows a higher percentage of charter schools are failing to meet state academic standards, compared to district-run public schools; average student test scores in most communities are lower for charter schools; and cyber charter schools, which are already supervised by the state, are the lowest performers.

In addition, there have been well-documented cases of charter school operators going out of business or receiving indictments on criminal charges for financial problems.

This is not a sterling record. It’s certainly not a mandate to allow unchecked expansion of charters and cyber charters, as the proposed legislation would.

Instead of running away from accountability and supervision, we believe charter school legislation should address it head-on.

A good place to start would be to:

  • Strengthen school board supervision over the charter schools located in their communities.

  • Increase communication about effective educational practices between charter administrators and local school officials through new policies and standards.

  • Prohibit elected officials, their staff and family members from owning or serving on the board of directors of charter and cyber charter schools.

  • Set academic performance targets for all students, including English language learners and students with disabilities.

  • Ensure that charter schools offer equal opportunity to children with disabilities, English language learners, and other students who are more costly and challenging to educate, just as district-run public schools must do.

We believe charter schools can serve an important role. Charters can experiment on a small scale with new educational models, free from many rules and restrictions found in district-run public schools.

The ultimate purpose of charter schools should be to conduct such experiments and then share the lessons learned with other public schools, not to grow unchecked or to permanently replace district-run schools.

The academic and fiscal performance of charter and cyber charter schools does not justify the “reform” legislation introduced to date in the General Assembly. State officials should go back to the drawing board, hold public hearings, acknowledge the mixed record of charters, and develop real reforms that clarify the role of charters in Pennsylvania and protect the rights of our students.

In short, charter schools can play a valuable, but limited role in helping to strengthen public schools in communities facing complex educational challenges. But taxpayer dollars for education should be invested primarily in public schools that are open to all children and fully accountable to the public through elected school boards.

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Comments (8)

Submitted by Philly Parent and Teacher (not verified) on August 26, 2011 8:12 am

Thanks, Ed Law Center. While traditional public schools are required to be more accountable, charter providers in PA are less accountable. This is another move toward privatization. As long as tax / public dollars are involved, there should be more accountability. We have seen enough scandals in Philadelphia charters to know that not everyone has good intentions and/or people get lured by the opportunity for theft.

Submitted by John O. Alizor, MA, EdS, PhD Researcher (not verified) on August 26, 2011 10:22 pm

Proposed charter legislation in Pennsylvania: A Response to the Education Law Center
by John O. Alizor, MA, EdS, PhD Researcher.

The people of Pennsylvania welcome the new charter school bill that will effectively remove all local control of charters and give parents a choice on how and where to educate their students. The current charter law that allow local school districts and school boards to control charter schools promotes unfair protectionism against failing traditional public schools managed by unqualified elected local school boards. Researches indicate that charter school organizers are teachers, educators that have been deprived from innovation by their traditional school districts because of politics. Research also indicate that charter school leaders are visionary and innovators that tend promote success for all students. They have succeeded, with fewer resources such as the average daily attendance revenue from their states, where the traditional public schools have failed. Charter schools receive less funding per pupil revenue than the traditional public schools. This is major information that the article by the Education Law Center ought to bring to the readers instead of a distorted view of the charter schools. The problem is that most parents are uninformed about charter schools as being a public school. The opponents of charter schools, like the Education Law Center, tend to create fear in the minds of the public by portraying charter as if it is not a public school.

The two main purposes of charter school law are to create competition and give parents a choice. The traditional public school ought not to worry about competition from charter schools if they, the traditional schools, belief in their claim of providing quality education to all students. This is a market-base concept which states that the consumer, such as students and their parents will determine the sustainability of the school base on their satisfaction of the performance of the students. The traditional public schools that fail to provide quality product such as curriculum and instruction, along with effective leadership will most likely not remain in business, hence the serious concerns and questions about the legislation by opponents like the Education Law Center.

The citizens of Pennsylvania have the right to know that there are many traditional public school in Pennsylvania and throughout out the United States that are failing. For example, in my home state of California, many traditional public schools are on a program improvement (PI) status for years, yet they continue to operate with taxpayers' money.

Charter schools does not avoid serving children with special needs rather it is the school districts that make it difficult for charter schools to provide such services by denying charter school access to resources such as school psychologist and professionals that are unaffordable by charter schools because of the charter schools' limited revenue. In fact, often the school districts, want the charter schools to fail, a good way to eliminate the competition. I am not saying that all charter schools are educating the students, but we must be careful not to send out the wrong message that only charter schools fail because the number of failing traditional public schools far exceed the number of failing charter schools.

The opponents of the pending legislation need to:
• .Perform an exhaustive scholarly unbiased research why parents remove their children from the traditional public school to enroll them in the charter schools.
• Examine why so many traditional public schools are on a program improvement (PI) status and are failing in many states.

Yes, we need to continually improve all school legislation, but a good place to start would be to:
• .Remove local control of charter school approval from the local school district elected board to establish an educated independent agency that will actually serve the interest of all stakeholders,
• Prohibit elected officials, their staff and family members from owning or serving on the board of directors of charter and cyber charter schools while in office as stated by the Education Law Center.
• Increase charter school ADA funding to the same level as the traditional public school funding to ensure that there are adequate resources to provide the equal opportunity to children with disabilities.

The reform legislation introduced to date in the General Assembly is a move in the right direction towards mitigating unnecessary hindrances created by the traditional public school for the sole purpose of depriving charter schools equal participation in the education of all children.

Submitted by Wendy Harris on September 12, 2011 4:37 pm

John Alizor, I am interested in getting in touch with you to see if we could get your permission to reprint your comment on this post as a letter to the editor in our next print edition. Could you provide an email where I can reach you to provide additional details about our request?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 12, 2011 7:32 pm

Come on Alizor, how many charters are ever started by educators? The problem is that the charter industry has become a get rich scheme that allows the wealthy to get even richer at the poor;s expense. Time and time again research has shown that the majority of charters aren't doing any better than the public. While you try to position the charters as the underdog you skip over the fact that charters routinely jettison behavior and learning problems back into the public school. They are also demand longer hours for less pay for their teachers while lavishly rewarding their administrators (many of whom have little of none educational experience) with outreageous salaries. This bill will only allow the highway robbery that has gone one for more than a decade in PA to continue. Ever wonder where teachers who get fired from the Philly public schools end up?

Submitted by Gary Sobolow (not verified) on August 27, 2011 12:33 am

As an individual with eight years experience in the charter school application process and as the founder of a charter school specifically targeting children with learning differences, I can speak from experience that oversight and charter school authorization by local school boards, particularly those representing smaller school districts, has only limited opportunities for innovation by charter schools.

Act 22, the Pennsylvania Charter School law under consideration for changes, inadvertently created the process of chartering schools a politically contentious one made so by the district’s real desire to retain students and the State funds that follow them. Act 22 does this by asking districts to authorize schools that will diminish the means to the districts’ survival. Adding insult, Act 22 directs school districts to “write the check” to charter schools in an amount equal to the money the districts allocate for the education of those students minus about 20%. Reasonably, districts respond by protecting their turf and, sadly, innovative school models conforming to the best intentions of Act 22 and the strictest interpretation of the PA school code are frequently denied the opportunity to bring about educational innovation and options.

Districts can deny a charter for any reason they can imagine without having to support their reasoning. We received a denial in which the district ironically suggested that the experimental model we proposed was not certain to succeed because it was unproven. In the same denial, the board indicated that the model offered "nothing new" and therefore had little experimental value.

Partially because school districts can deny charters in this manner, the chartering process has also become an expensive legal one, making it still more difficult to realize innovative schools.

Districts reasonably consider costs additional to the financial hit they would take if they lost students. At the close of a public hearing during which our proposal was awarded a charter, I graciously thanked the district's superintendent and invited her and her team to visit our new school. She replied, "I doubt I'll have the time." Those working in public education know that resources like time are stretched to the limit. Requiring districts to oversee the charter schools they would authorize gives school districts another reason not to authorize them and again subverts innovation.

Newly passed education budget cuts will encourage school districts to hold on even tighter to smaller financial resources while the costs for educational products and services they need only increase.

For the purposes of depoliticizing the chartering process and realizing innovative new schools constrained only by a careful vetting process focused purely on the future of public education and student opportunity, I believe it is imperative that the General Assembly authorize and sufficiently fund a central charter schools agency during this upcoming session.

Submitted by John O. Alizor, PhD Researcher (not verified) on April 22, 2012 4:41 pm

Your comment is very informative. The taxpayers have a duty to know how their funds are being misused by the school districts in legal fees just to denial a petition for charter. You stated that,"Districts can deny a charter for any reason they can imagine without having to support their reasoning" you should have added that the districts are willing and ready to spend thousands of taxpayers money in legal fees to do so. What a waste of money?

I agree with you that, "it is imperative that the General Assembly authorize and sufficiently fund a central charter schools agency during this upcoming session." The community needs to know that every time a district denies a charter petition, parents and student suffer because they are forced to remain in a district that is low performing. Specifically, the district indirectly denies parents and students a choice to enroll in a school of their choice. In a democratic society individuals make choices that are best for them and their families; charter schools meet the needs for a democratic government.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 29, 2011 6:57 am

It is troubling that this bill will make scrutiny of charters more difficult. Less regulation, which this bill promises, allows greater manipulation of the dreams and hopes of the uncritical by the unscrupulous. Unregulated free markets can be, as proven by the mortgage market, disastrous. It is no different in the education market. (And OH YES, there is definitely a market, as I found when I homeschooled for a few years.) There is also no acknowledgement that there is a “critical mass” at which having too many independent schools competing for the same resources becomes counterproductive.

The strategy of starting from scratch doesn’t directly address the root causes of failure in poverty ridden schools. Yes, it does address tenured ineptitude/lack of caring; however, it does not guarantee the support structure needed to tackle the often daunting destructive attitudes kids are saddled with. It is the building of this structure that needs to be addressed, not the anger and dissatisfaction with the status quo. The rewarding of teams and not individuals for true successes needs to happen. Parent choice can be effective regulation, but it is not a guarantee of effective regulation/quality of education. It is only the informed, educated, and critical parent after all that tends to make the better choices for their child.

On closer examination, it looks like true recourse is missing from charters as well as the traditional public schools. There is no real enforcement available of all the “nice, right, good speak”. Transferring to another school isn’t always a viable option, due to transportation or admission requirements. Complaining to a board, whether elected or appointed doesn’t always get redress. It doesn’t matter that a charter must be reviewed every few years. Often it is not entirely clear whether a school is meeting the goals set forth in its charter. There is added cost in ensuring accountability and transparency. The reality is any board whether elected or appointed is politicized. Whether administration is local or not, it can be influenced.

Submitted by Wendy Harris on September 12, 2011 4:22 pm

John Alizor, I am interested in getting in touch with you to see if we could get your permission to reprint your comment on this post as a letter to the editor in our next print edition. Could you provide an email where I can reach you to provide additional details about our request?

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