If you weren’t worried about the rising cost of public education before now — you should be. If Pennsylvania passes the charter bills currently in the state Senate, expect more of the same: higher school taxes and disappointing news on school performance.
In fact, a proposed amendment to the package that would have required a rigorous charter accountability system failed by a vote of 100-99. Harrisburg — what are you thinking?
Just last week, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) released a study on charter school performance in Pennsylvania that should be sounding alarms in the minds of legislators across the state. Despite decades of investments, Pennsylvania’s charter school students aren’t showing the results promised or hoped for. Student reading performance is similar for charters and traditional public schools, and in math, charter school students are doing worse than their public school peers.
To be sure, the report finds that black, Hispanic, and students in poverty attending brick and mortar charters have made some gains in reading compared to peers in traditional public schools. Those gains are modest — 35 additional days of learning in reading. My guess is they were also made at the expense of students in public schools because school districts must pay for every new seat in a charter school, leaving them less money to spend on traditional public classrooms.
Of all the bad news in this report, none is more alarming than the fact that students in cyber charter schools fare far worse than any other students in the state. Compared to students in traditional public schools, on average, cyber charter students perform as if they’ve had 106 fewer days of reading in school and 118 fewer days in math class. Keep in mind, there are only 180 days in a school year.
Statewide, in 2016, state school districts paid $1.5 billion dollars in charter school tuition payments. Charter schools receive this funding regardless of whether their students are making the grade. Worse yet, in 2012-13 they were paid over $200 million more for special education services than they spent on these services for our students.
That’s why more than five years ago, a bi-partisan legislative commission, which I co-chaired with state Senator Pat Browne, unanimously recommended a formula that pays schools to deliver special education services using a tiered system based on the severity of a student’s disability and community-specific factors. Those reforms now apply to our traditional public schools. But the powerful lobby employed by charter school operators has ensured those reforms never apply to charter schools by arguing that the schools could not run with the resulting funding reductions.
Moreover, because Pennsylvania’s charter school law does not differentiate between tuition rates for brick and mortar and cyber charter schools, districts pay the same amount per student whether they are taught in a building or at home at a computer. That’s $463 million that went to cyber charter schools 2016-17.
Yet Pennsylvania House representatives voted against amendments that would institute a stronger system of accountability for charter schools and protect taxpayers, school districts, and students from failure. Worse still, they have failed to address the wasteful, unaccountable method of funding charters. As a result, local taxpayers must shoulder the burden of these bad decisions with higher property taxes every year.
As I have always said, good charter reform isn’t anti-charter — it’s pro-taxpayer.
I urge my fellow citizens and members of the Pennsylvania Senate to reject the House’s so-called “charter reform bills” until there is package of bills worthy of the word “reform.” At a minimum that package would support high-quality charter schools, end the corruption of cyber charter payments, only pay charter schools for special education services rendered, offset the impact of charter payments on public traditional school students, and close cyber and bricks and mortar charter schools that consistently show poor performance.