Commentary: Charter school lobby seeks to restrict democratic control of schools
Gov. Corbett's administration, supported by the charter school lobby, is seeking to pass a change in the charter school law that would effectively remove control of charter schools from local communities in favor of a statewide commission of political appointees. The proposed law would also ease requirements for prospective charter school operators, increase the term for renewals from five to 10 years, and dramatically increase the ability of local school boards to convert existing public schools to charters.
Under the revisions, any district-run school, regardless of its performance, could be targeted for conversion to a charter, and the requirement that some parental and community support be demonstrated is dropped. The law would also exclude the records of some charter school vendors from the “right to know” law.
For much of the last year, the prospects for the law’s passage seemed dim. But now, proponents of the bill have adopted a new tactic, attaching the essentials of their bill to the stalled bill that would change the funding formula for special education. This is a cynical ploy meant to avoid a serious discussion of the issues concerning charter schools.
Public school advocates, and, for that matter, charter school advocates who share a commitment to special education ought to demand that this amendment be put in the trash where it belongs.
While adopting the public posture that governance doesn’t matter, the legislative agenda of the charter school lobby is that governance very much does matter. Its view: The more it is removed from local communities, the better things will be.
Jonathan Cetel, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Campaign for Achievement Now, has said that "parents don't care about governance structures. They care about making sure their child attends a school that is safe, staffed with caring adults and preparing them for success.”
But this notion that parents don’t care about governance provides an easy rationale for avoiding transparency and accountability. It may well be that most people do not pay attention to governance in the abstract. But when it becomes clear that their interests are being ignored and they have no means for redress, they demand a voice. Like the parents at the Planet Abacus charter in Tacony, who at a recent School Reform Commission meeting called for sharing governance with a parent board at the school after a federal grand jury indictment of school administrators for fraud.
Repeated corruption scandals and evidence that some charter schools operate as if they were private schools demand more, not less, democratic control.
Public education has developed as an institution that is directly accountable to the citizenry thorough the election of local school boards (except in Philadelphia and, increasingly, in other communities that are taken over by the state). The corporate school reformers are at odds with this democratic tradition. Over the last decade, they have pushed mayoral control of schools, discarding hard-won democratic reforms like Chicago’s Local School Councils. They also have supported increasing state government intervention at the expense of local control. These developments have facilitated a greater role for business-friendly elites and are linked with a reform agenda that favors closing traditional schools in favor of charters.
Prospects for passage at this point are unclear, but clearly the bill's proponents hope to peel off a few votes from legislators concerned about making changes in special education funding. Education Voters PA has some excellent talking points for influencing your legislator.