How much criticism does the new Philadelphia School Board deserve for allowing a failing charter school to remain open?
This week, the board reversed a 2017 decision by its predecessor, the School Reform Commission, to close Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School for declining academic performance and other problems and gave it two years to improve its academic performance and make other corrections. If the school doesn’t meet a list of new standards, it has reportedly agreed to surrender its charter.
On the face of it, allowing a troubled school with 500 students and declining performance to continue to exist is an outrage. But the fact is, the outrage should be directed to the 20-year-old state charter-school law that is considered one of the worst in the country, and to state lawmakers who have refused to alter, reform, or improve the original bill so that the promise of charters would have a better chance of changing the lives of students – and the failing ones would close before damaging more students.
One of the charter reforms needed underlies the board’s decision to given Allen another chance: the process of closing a charter school is so protracted that it would likely take more than the two-year reprieve Richard Allen was given to complete the process. Schools whose charters are not renewed can appeal to the state Charter School Appeal Board, where a closure decision can be reversed (and often is). That goes to the heart of a fundamental flaw in our public education: frequent conflict between the state and the local district when it comes to charter standards and expectations.
The gulf between the state and local districts plays out in the way that charter schools have evolved – rapidly and without a clearly defined set of goals and expectations for their success. Charter schools are supposed to be alternatives that allow innovative and successful ideas to develop that can ultimately improve the performance of all schools. Instead, their academic excellence is spotty at best, and given the way the law is crafted, they drain resources from the traditional districts. They often provide a culture and structure that appeals to parents, but the sad fact is that on the whole, they perform only marginally better than traditional public schools, and often far worse.
It’s as if the state legislature created the law in 1997 and hadn’t much bothered with it since, other than to urge more charter schools to open. That is criminally irresponsible. In Philadelphia, there are now 87 charter schools educating one-third of all public school students.
Mild attempts at reform – that have included alterations to the law that would make the situation worse – have been floated for the past few years, with little traction. Talk of reforms typically arise around budget time. It’s hard to understand why this is so hard to pull off.