Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Philly school officials: Pa. urgently needs charter-school reform | Opinion

Dr. William Hite and Joyce Wilkerson: We ask our lawmakers to go back to the drawing board on the charter school package and pass legislation that supports high-quality schools.

School board president Joyce Wilkerson and school superintendent William Hite call on Pennsylvania lawmakers to reform charter school regulations.
School board president Joyce Wilkerson and school superintendent William Hite call on Pennsylvania lawmakers to reform charter school regulations.Read moreED HILLE / Staff Photographer

The quality of Pennsylvania’s schools, both district and charter, is vital to the commonwealth’s future prosperity.

For Pennsylvania to attract new businesses and grow job opportunities for residents, its public schools must provide a high-quality education that prepares all students to become the leaders, innovators, and entrepreneurs of tomorrow. But the commonwealth’s current charter-school law undermines this possibility for thousands of public school students.

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale called the 1997 charter law “the worst in the nation.” We couldn’t agree more. Our message to the General Assembly is clear: The need to overhaul Pennsylvania’s charter-school law is real and urgent. School districts need better tools to hold charter-school operators accountable to families and taxpayers.

The commonwealth has an ethical and moral responsibility to its public school students to ensure charter schools are held to the same state academic standards as district schools. It also has a fiscal responsibility to taxpayers to ensure funds invested in charters are a good investment and are safeguarded against misuse. Current charter law falls woefully short on these fronts and many others.

Legislation pending in the General Assembly pushes the charter law in the wrong direction. House Bills 356 and 357 create more risk for students, local districts, and taxpayers. We vehemently oppose these bills.

The legislation would allow all charter schools, even the poorest performers, to expand without the authorizing district’s knowledge or approval. These unpredictable expenses would not only create short-term fiscal challenges for the district but make it impossible to reasonably utilize multiyear budgeting -- the very approach to budgeting that has allowed the district to make the strategic, sustainable investments that are resulting in improved academic performance across our schools. These bills undermine the fiscal-stability promise of local control.

Newly proposed charter legislation also frees charters from oversight that is necessary to ensure they are meeting academic standards. They make it harder to close underperforming charters and allow unfettered expansion of charters -- even those with failing performance -- without regard for their ability to successfully operate. The proposed standard charter application form lacks information on an applicant’s’ experience, finances, past performance, and operational ability, all of which are necessary to meaningfully assess whether the applicant can sustain a school that meets the needs of the very students it aspires to serve.

The original vision for charter schools was teacher-driven laboratories of innovation that would develop promising practices to inform and advance all public schools. Charters have not lived up to that promise. In fact, charter schools are only 6 percent of public schools in Pennsylvania but are 25 percent of the lowest-performing schools under new state standards. Is this the future we want for the commonwealth’s public education system? Is this the future our students and families deserve?

The other bills, House Bills 355 and 358, would correct questionable charter-school practices such as staffing boards with family members. They set clear conflict-of-interest provisions, require schools to follow accepted accounting standards, and promote budget and operating transparency. These changes are welcome and long overdue but do not offset the harm to school districts from the overall charter package.

School districts statewide are proactively advocating for significant amendments that promote high-quality charters. Real charter reform must require greater accountability. It must set clear performance goals for charter schools and hold them to the same need-based special education funding model as school districts. It must also give authorizers the tools needed to ensure charter operators are living up to their promise and providing our students the education they deserve.

A high-performing, well-managed school, whether district or charter, is a good investment for students and taxpayers. We ask our lawmakers to go back to the drawing board on the charter-school package and pass legislation that supports high-quality schools. Our children, our families, and our commonwealth are depending on it.

Dr. William R. Hite is superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia. Joyce Wilkerson is president of Philadelphia’s school board.