May 25 — 4:12 pm, 2010

Charters: Learning some lessons

When the charters burst onto the scene in Pennsylvania in 1997, the promise was not just to create a handful of good, new schools. 

By giving charter founders freedom from excessive regulation, we were told, untapped entrepreneurial energies and innovative models would flourish. Communities would create more responsive educational institutions. Market forces would be unleashed and competition would force bureaucratic schools to change. Eventually bad charters and failing District schools would shut down.

Philadelphia embraced this movement, which accelerated after the creation of the School Reform Commission. The result is a charter network big enough to constitute the second largest school district in the state.

We now have more than a handful of exemplary charter schools that are worth learning from – schools where the whole community has bought into a mission and is focused on serving children. 

But the promise of a broader transformation of Philadelphia schools has not materialized. 

As a whole, charters in Philadelphia have replicated the uneven performance of regular public schools. And it’s been twenty times easier to get a charter than to have one revoked. 

Lack of public information is a major stumbling block. The District is hardly a model of transparency, but at least there’s one place to go for detailed data about how schools are doing or for information on school admissions. The charter world is a bewildering maze by contrast. And neither system has mechanisms for learning from best practices so innovation can spread.

At the school level, there should be free access to information like board minutes, ethics statements, and admissions processes. Citywide, we need more data about charters that will allow for better comparisons between them and District schools. We need public access to charter files – for example, to know how a charter is rated in its review process.

In the absence of public scrutiny, the freedom that some charter operators have exploited is the freedom to make a buck. Private organizations have run some of these public schools like personal fiefdoms.

Thanks to diligent journalists like Martha Woodall of the Inquirer and a report by the City Controller, some criminal activities and many shenanigans have come to light. 

The list of examples in Controller Alan Butkovitz’s report is mind-boggling, including a CEO earning three full-time salaries and two charters that lease facilities from their own CEO. Oversight that will stem the fraud and abuse is desperately needed. 

But politics holds sway. Philadelphia is still adding charters – seven more this year through the Renaissance Schools initiative. The pro-charter camp is declining to act aggressively to overhaul the state’s charter law. It appears that even reining in the profiteers is going to be a struggle.

It’s one more case of misplaced faith in the invisible hand of “the market.” As predicted, parents have shown that they crave the chance to make good educational choices. Many have chosen charters that may be somewhat safer and more customer-friendly than District schools. But choices that deliver a quality academic program don’t just materialize.

The growth of charters creates new complexities for ensuring accountability and transparency.  A serious conversation about those issues should start now. 

the notebook

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