Twenty-two years after its enactment, Pennsylvania’s charter school law may finally see some long overdue revisions. Last month, Gov. Tom Wolf issued a set of rule changes to the 1997 law that calls for more accountability, a formalization of applications, and tighter ethical guidelines. A legislative package should follow soon. Some charter advocates are not happy, and not just because Wolf referred to charters in terms of “the privatization of public education,” but because he also wants to charge charters fees for financial disputes they have with districts.
While we are tempted to criticize Wolf for taking so long to act, the fact is, until Wolf, the state has had four governors since the charter law was first passed who have done nothing — or in some cases, worse than nothing — to make necessary amendments to the charter law. Meanwhile, growth of the sector has been explosive. Almost 9 percent of students in the state — about 140,000 — are now charter-educated, to the tune of $1.5 billion a year.
What’s at issue here is not just the money spent, but the results. Charters were established to allow freedom and innovation that could ultimately improve all public education, but that promise has remained unfulfilled. On academic performance, the results are also a mixed bag. Some individual schools do very well, but too many fall short of traditional public schools. And a recent Center for Research on Education Outcomes report from Stanford University pointed to dismal performance of cyber charters.
As supporters and detractors continue their debate, we should look at the bigger picture to gauge the impact of charters. After two decades of charter education, shouldn’t the state have seen a rise in college graduation rates and income levels?
On both those fronts, the news is grim. In 2004, 75.3% of Pennsylvania high school graduates were bound for some postsecondary education (71.8% of those college-bound). In 2017-18, that number dropped to 71.7% (69.5% of them college-bound). Obviously, college education is not the only marker for success, but it’s a credible and measurable barometer of progress. A quality education is not just a social imperative, but an economic one, and in income levels and growth, the state lags woefully. Since 2012, the U.S. has seen a 15% rise in incomes; Pennsylvania has only seen 6%. The state ranks a dismal 42nd in the country for income growth.
These numbers indict more than charters, of course. But charters were supposed to stimulate innovation and elevate the quality of all public education. They haven’t.
One things charters do very well is lobby for themselves. Despite less than stellar test results, and dreadful reports on cyber schools, state lawmakers have left them virtually alone. Some “reform” attempts have done nothing to increase accountability.