December 15 — 6:29 pm, 2011

Proposed charter law changes unlikely to improve schools

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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