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With new rules, Pa. charter school performance plummets

The percentage of Pennsylvania charter schools that met academic benchmarks plummeted after the state Department of Education was forced to recalculate the performance rates.

The percentage of Pennsylvania charter schools that met academic benchmarks plummeted after the state Department of Education was forced to recalculate the performance rates.

Under a new and controversial method the department used last fall, 49 percent of 156 charter schools met benchmarks based on student tests scores in 2011-12.

The rate dropped to 28 percent after the department released a recalculation this week. In Philadelphia, the percentage of the 80 charter schools that met the standards declined from 54 percent to 29 percent.

None of the 12 cyber charter schools that provide online in-home instruction to students statewide met the benchmarks. Previously, one met the standard.

The state sets the benchmarks to determine if a school has made "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Fifty percent of district-run schools across the state met the criteria.

The academic performance of charter schools is a central component in the debate over education funding, which pits school districts against publicly funded charters.

After the Education Department released its first results last September, the Pennsylvania Association of School Boards said it was concerned that the new calculation was an "attempt to artificially inflate the number of charter schools regarded as making AYP."

The association, which represents districts across the state, said the results "served to mask deficiencies in charter schools and deny families the information necessary to make informed choices, misleading them about the charter schools they are considering choosing or that they already attend."

Steve Robinson, a spokesman for the association, said Thursday that recalculated numbers indicate that overall, school districts outperform charters - something the association believes legislators should take into account when looking at school funding.

Lawrence Jones, president of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, pointed out that even though the recalculation meant that fewer Philadelphia charters met AYP, 29 percent was still better than the 13 percent for Philadelphia's district-run schools.

"We are sad to see the reduction in the number of charter schools" meeting the state standards, he said, "but in Philadelphia, especially, it shows we are viable education reform."

In September, the state calculated the academic performances of individual charter schools on the basis that they were local education agencies - the same measurement it applies to school districts.

The state had asked the U.S. Department of Education for permission to use the local agency method - which has broader, less-stringent criteria - for charter schools.

Even though the federal government had not authorized the change, the state went ahead. The Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools trumpeted the success and said charters were outperforming district-run schools, especially in cities.

Noting that the federal government had not authorized the change, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association complained to the U.S. department in October.

The U.S. department agreed with the school boards' objection and ordered the state to recalculate charters' performance as individual schools, which are required to meet specific academic targets.

Timothy Eller, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said Thursday that the federal government had said that if the state wanted to assess charters as local agencies, it also had to assess them as individual schools.

"So now, like traditional public schools and districts, charter schools will receive an AYP status as a district and as a school," Eller said.

Jones, of the charter coalition, said showing results from both methods gives families more information about charter schools' performance.

"We understand that having both views may cause some confusion, but we do think it is a more equitable way of looking at things," said Jones, who is also the chief executive of the Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School in Southwest Philadelphia.

He said the numbers also indicate that charter schools and district-run schools "all have a lot of work to do."