SINCE ACT 22 enabled charter schools in the state 15 years ago, charters have expanded exponentially; Pennsylvania taxpayers now spend about $1 billion a year on 73,000 students enrolled in "bricks and mortar" and cyber-charter schools. With charters championed by lawmakers as a key alternative to traditional public schools, expect even more.
But we are also at a particular tipping point for charters, since more voices are expressing concern that charters are a path to dismantling the traditional public system to put education - and lots of public money - in the hands of private companies with little or no accountability.
Harrisburg is helping widen that divide with a series of bills and proposals that are described as reforms. One would remove local district control of charters and put them under oversight of a new state board.
That itself is a questionable move, but more disturbing is a provision in a House bill that would exempt for-profit education providers from right-to-know laws. Such laws currently apply to charters, but a proposed amendment would exempt "vendors of local agencies," which could include private management groups that run charter schools. That means operators of schools funded with public dollars would be closed to scrutiny.
The resulting pushback was enough to put the halt on the larger charter-reform bill. And while lawmakers will return to debate the real meaning of the amendment, and just who would be exempt, as far as we're concerned charters and their operators must be more transparent, not less.
Charters are funded with public money. That, to us, is the most basic benchmark for access to information. And charters' willingness to provide access to their records is apparently bad enough without a law that limits them further.
In fact, Terry Mutchler, head of the state Office of Open Records, has publicly denounced charter schools' lack of openness. Since the open-records law was passed four years ago, she says, charter schools have provided more obstacles to opening their records to the public than has any other type of agency.
Mutchler says charters are "one of the top violators across the commonwealth, repeatedly, at every level. When a citizen appeals, they are flat-out ignored. We order them to release records, and those orders get ignored. Their response borders on arrogant."
Of the 1,741 appeals received by the Office of Open Records for denied information requests, 23 percent pertain to charter schools.
That means that parents - or even school districts - who want to know about a charter school board, its budget, or even its application process are getting stonewalled. Mutchler says charters have built a wall around themselves.
The series of charter scandals over greedy, wasteful or even criminal operators that have plagued the city and the state should be cautionary tales that demand more scrutiny, not less.
Charters could be the key to a better education for thousands of kids. But the perfect storm forming of more money and less accountability will lead only to disaster - for education and for those of us paying for it.