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Proposed charter law changes unlikely to improve schools

By Guest blogger on Dec 15, 2011 05:29 PM

The state House rejected a voucher bill last night, but concerns remain about the charter law changes Governor Corbett proposed as part of the bill. In this guest blog post, Susan DeJarnatt and Theresa Glennon, professors of law at Temple University Beasley School of Law, describe the proposed changes and their shortcomings.

Pennsylvania currently spends nearly a billion dollars on charter schools, and Gov. Tom Corbett proposes to escalate their growth dramatically.

The School District of Philadelphia alone is paying $525 million dollars – more than 20 percent of its total budget – to charter schools. Just five Pennsylvania cyber charter schools receive over $200 million dollars – getting the same per pupil funding as bricks and mortar schools despite minimal costs for facilities and much lower staffing costs. Charter schools are increasingly operated by large, for-profit companies more beholden to their shareholders than to the students they teach. Already, the oversight system is under strain.

Charter schools have yet to prove they can outperform public schools, yet Corbett’s plan favors their growth. And despite numerous scandals concerning fiscal mismanagement, Corbett proposes to centralize and reduce that oversight even more.

Charter schools have failed to improve on public schools. Researchers at Stanford University recently concluded that students in Pennsylvania on average make smaller learning gains in charter schools than they would if they attended neighborhood public schools – and in the case of students in cyber charter schools, their performance actually decreased. They also serve significantly fewer students with severe disabilities and students for whom English is a second language.

Taxpayers also have good reason to worry about how charter schools spend our tax dollars. Five charter school operators have been convicted of misuse of public funds. Two others were recently indicted. Nineteen Philadelphia charters are or have been investigated by the US Attorney’s office for concerns about financial mismanagement. The Philadelphia city controller’s 2010 investigation showed numerous concerns about conflicts of interest, nepotism in hiring, and dubious leasing arrangements that benefited related organizations at the expense of the school.

This discouraging track record points to the need for strong oversight of the use of public funds. Our current oversight system is inadequate. Although charter schools must provide budgets and audits to local and state agencies, Pennsylvania has not provided funds to the Pennsylvania Department of Education or the local school districts to allow close monitoring of charters.

Yet, instead of improving oversight, Corbett’s proposal places oversight in the hands of a politically appointed state commission that may well be paid by those whom they are charged with regulating – charter school operators. In addition, new charter school applicants can avoid local scrutiny and gain approval despite a negative impact on local communities. Charters would last for 10 years instead of the current 5 and renewal would be automatic unless the commission acts.

We can do better. Charter school operators should be required to demonstrate that they will improve the education of their students and be held accountable for failure to do so. We must ensure that our tax dollars are spent on education, not nepotism and excessive salaries. Dedicated state funds should be provided to local school districts to monitor the schools in their communities. In addition, charter schools should be required to emulate KIPP’s Open Book policy, which makes all of its financial information and audits available on its web page.

Vast increases in spending on charters at the expense of traditional schools do not make educational or fiscal sense unless we raise the bar for charter school performance and carefully monitor their spending. Corbett’s plan does neither and should be rejected.

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Comments (13)

Submitted by Timothy Boyle on December 15, 2011 9:14 pm

Susan and Theresa you hit all the right notes. The concerns are legitimate and the praise is due. While I've haven't seen KIPP's pedagogy in practice, I can say that their Open Book project is far more progressive than any other operator in Philadelphia.

Submitted by Philly Parent and Teacher (not verified) on December 16, 2011 2:33 am

Thanks you for this concise, reasoned rejection of Corbett's proposal for charter schools. There are many quality charters but also far too many mediocre to failing charters that offer no real alternative to students or families. I am particularly concerned with the "cyber" charters. They should receive far less per students because not only do they not have buildings to maintain, heat/cool, etc., they have no need for security, a school nurse, or any other support services needed in school. This year I have had a number of high school students who appear to be recruited by cyber charters. They are leaving school in the middle of marking periods because "I was accepted at a cyber charter." The cyber charters have the funds to actively recruit selective students. If past years are any indicators, once the student struggles, they will be "un-recruited" and returned to their neighborhood school. There needs to be far more oversight over charters but cyber charters in particular.

Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on December 20, 2011 7:51 am

I agree with the article on the oversight deficiencies. I did try a cyber charter for a year for my younger son, and I found it interesting. The curricula was definately much better than the SD's and my son did benefit immensely from the vocabulary work. I don't have time to go into great detail about the pros and cons that I found which might be appropriate for a different discussion on educational methods; however in terms of operating costs I noticed that it has been omitted here that cyber schools provide computers at no cost and subsidize an internet connection @ about $30.00 per month. In addition, I was allowed to keep nearly all the workbooks and some of the printed material. I was lent a microscope and given Art supplies. There were cyber conferencing workshops that would have required server costs... etc. What is not often clear is that it requires much more caregiver time and supervision at the younger grades. This then makes it not feasible for families whose caregivers work outside of the home.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on December 16, 2011 7:13 am

Excellent summary of many of the serious issues befronting us. An essential question which must be answered first by our General Assembly is this:

Are charter schools "public schools" with the fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of the children, their parents, and the community they purport to serve? Or are they private schools whereby the operators serve the best interests of those who want to profit off of our schoolchildren?

This not to say I am against charter schools because I am not. That is as long as they are operated as public schools for the best interests of the students with full and transparent public accounting. If they are operated by profiteers and those who want to privatize schools for their own profit interests, I am not for them.

I have acquainted myself with several charter operators and they seem to be good guys doing good things for children. I certainly support them. However, I have also met despicable people who have no business running schools. I believe what we need most is a "Charter School Student and Parent Protection Act" to protect them and us from unscrupulous charter operators.

As I have written much about -- the answer is in Democray as the governance structure for all public schools, including charter schools. It is amazing what Ben, Tom, Sam and the boys knew about the governance of schools for the 21st century! And they did their best thinking right here in Philadelphia almost 250 years ago.

These are serious, critical issues cited above and they speak to the welfare of children, our communities and our common good.

Submitted by Ryan Schumm (not verified) on December 16, 2011 11:04 am

Wait a minute...this post whines about the amount of money that PA spends on charter schools, but let's look at the math. Philadelphia spends 20% of its budget on charter schools, however 25% (YES, 1 in 4 Phila Public School Students) attend a charter school. Sounds like a good deal for the district - spend 1/5 of their budget to educate 1/4 of their students.

There is no doubt that accountability in every aspect of public education needs to be increased, including fiscal accountability. Charter schools are inherently accountable to taxpayers because it is the taxpayers who choose to populate the schools. If a parent experienced fiscal corruption or poor educational results at their public school 15 years ago, their only option to escape was to move. We've come a long way.

Submitted by shadowchb (not verified) on December 16, 2011 3:20 pm

Wait just a minute yourself! It is NOT 'the taxpayers', it is a small subset of taxpayers, a.k.a. parents, who choose to apply for charter school admission. The rest of us taxpayers, who fund the majority of the charter school payments, have a right to expect that our tax money is being spent wisely, there are sufficient controls to prevent fraud and waste, and that we have a voice in how the charter schools spend our money.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 19, 2011 8:08 pm

Right, but the post above suggests that the charters schools are more efficient than the SDP. If you are concerned about fraud and waste, the SDP might be the place to start. The stigma of "charter" vs. "public" is mostly irrelevant. Arlene Ackerman's and Estelle Matthew's bank accounts don't care if the their money is "public" or "charter."

Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on December 20, 2011 7:39 am

Very true. It is also true that most charters get less per child from the State. In addition have yet to see any SDP personnel get prosecuted for theft or corruption...

Submitted by Jonathan Cetel (not verified) on December 16, 2011 5:16 pm

Thanks Professors DeJarnatt and Glennon for the shout-out to our online data-sharing portal, KIPP Open Book. As the Director of Strategic Initiatives at KIPP Philadelphia Schools, one of the many hats I wear is managing our community and government relations. The value system that inspired KIPP Open Book – a belief in accountability and transparency – are what inspired us to work to get involved in these negotiations, and ultimately support this charter bill. As readers consider whether the bill will reduce the oversight of charter schools, I thought it important to highlight 3 key points:

1. Academic Accountability: KIPP successfully advocated for the bill to include meaningful academic performance standards (here’s a link to our Senate testimony where we introduce the idea Go back and read the bill and you’ll see language that requires PDE to develop an “academic performance matrix” to be used by all authorizers during the renewal process that would measure data points like test scores, graduation rates, and student attrition, among others.

2. Standardized Enrollment Form: The proposed legislation would require the state commission to develop standardized forms and procedures, including a standard enrollment form that all charter schools would have to distribute to families during the open-enrollment period. We advocated for this provision because we believe charters have a responsibility to make it as easy as possible for families to enroll.

3. Statewide authorizer: The very real problems that you cite regarding fiscal and management abuses by certain charter schools happened under the watch of local school districts. The schools in question bear the brunt of the responsibility, but it’s a fact that local school districts – whether for lack of capacity, lack of political will, lack of interest, or some other reason – have not been able to shut down charter schools. The proposed legislation will continue to allow local school boards to authorize charter schools, but it will also create a statewide authorizer that we believe will do a better job of shutting down the bad schools, supporting the struggling schools, and replicating the high-performers.

We strongly agree with you that charter schools need more oversight; but we believe this bill – while far from perfect – would be a great improvement over the status quo.

Submitted by Susan DeJarnatt (not verified) on December 19, 2011 4:57 pm

Thanks for your comments Jonathan. The academic accountability provisions and standard enrollment forms sound like useful steps--though I have not studied them. But the proposal's financial accountaibliity provisions are not useful steps forward. True, the problems that exist have come to life under the current inadequate oversight system. I fear that the proposal will make a bad situation worse for three key reasons. The proposal removes oversight from local communities who have much stronger connections to the schools. The Commission will be financially dependent on the schools it is supposed to oversee which is not a recipe for success. Third and most troubling, renewals will be automatic unless the Commission acts. The Commission will be under pressure to reduce oversight, not to increase it.

Submitted by Jonathan Cetel (not verified) on December 19, 2011 8:13 pm

Thanks for the reply. Let me address each of your points: First, I disagree with the notion that removing oversight from “local communities who have much stronger connection to the schools” will lead to less oversight. We now have more than a decade’s worth of evidence to prove that the School District of Philadelphia - whether governed by a local school board or school reform commission – has not provided the count of accountability we both want. Your second point is trickier. I totally share your concern that the proposal creates a perverse incentive to keep bad schools open. There was a lot of debate about what to do here. The problem is that the only way to guarantee that the authorizer has sufficient revenue is to charge the charter schools a fee based on their per-pupil. Remove that source of revenue and you are left with a bare entity that will almost certainly not be able to close bad schools because they will be so severely understaffed! After all the conversations I've had on this, I never heard a better suggestion for how to balance that tension. If the state authorizer ends up a reality, do you have an alternate funding structure that could work? As for the third point about the automatic renewal if the Commission doesn’t act, my understanding is that this is already in the current law. I always figured that policy existed so districts couldn't passively close schools by just not acting. Would you rather the school get revoked in this situation? If you were up for tenure and the review committee didn’t complete your paperwork, it wouldn’t be fair for you to automatically get fired, right? Feel free to reach out to me offline to continue ( the conversation.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on December 19, 2011 9:16 pm

The essential question of school governance is "Whose School Is It?"

The primary policy question that must be answered by our General Assembly is whether charter schools are public schools or private schools funded with public money. Does the new legislation clarify that?

Do you believe that charter schools are public schools or private schools?

Next, answer me this question: Whose School is KIPP charter school?

Now this isn't to give you a hard time. KIPP is one of my top charter schools and I recommend it. I met Marc and some of your team and I believe Kipp is a group of good guys doing good things for children. But the hard questions of school governance must be asked, debated and resolved. So for discussion's sake, what's your answer to my questions?

Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on December 20, 2011 8:16 am

The job of closing underperforming charters should be placed outside of the office that also rates them. Funding should come from general education funding as it is in the interest of all of us... charters and traditional are connected after all.

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