A RATIONAL school-funding formula for Pennsylvania to ensure that all children - no matter what their ZIP code - can be assured a quality education should be a priority for the new Wolf administration. That's likely to be a heavy lift.
But we hope, even before that complicated process begins, that lawmakers in Harrisburg acknowledge that they must first fix the way charter schools are funded.
Lawmakers are in love with charters, an ardor that has only grown since passage of the original state law in 1997. Philadelphia has the bulk of the state's charters - 86 schools enrolling about a third of the district's total student population. Many succeed. Many don't, and the weaknesses throughout the charter system are barely addressed or acknowledged by lawmakers.
One of the key reasons for those weaker-performing schools includes the lack of a strong organizational structure for overseeing them.
Right now, charters get funding based on their student numbers, an average of $8,000 per student, and $23,000 for special-education students. Those dollars get removed from the school district and go directly to charters. The district used to get a portion of that money reimbursed by the state - presumably to allow the district to build the structure that would allow it to oversee these schools. The district now has about six people in its charter office: that's six people running the second-largest school district in the state, which is how big the city's charter system is.
Last week, the district received 40 applications for new charters. Advocates say that the failure of traditional schools fuels the demand for more charters, and more choice. Choice is great if the choices include better schools, but they don't necessarily. By pushing charters without reasonable controls, the state has created a system of education that is at best uneven.
And, somehow, it keeps making it worse: the recent passage of a $2-per-pack cigarette tax that will help fund schools also included a section that requires the School Reform Commission to accept charter applications, and gives charters who don't get approved the right to appeal to the state.
As if it wasn't obvious, the folly of the state being able to override the district in charter-school decisions and operations was made tragically clear last month, when the Walter Palmer Leadership Learning Partners charter school suddenly closed its high school. That's because it defied an agreement limiting its enrollment and had 600 more students than it should have. That situation was exacerbated, for a time, when the state funded the extra students, overriding the district.
The state, meanwhile, is considering applications for three cyber charter schools. Cyber schools deserve deep scrutiny, especially after a report released this week from Research for Action, an education research organization, that found that performance at cybers is disturbingly low.
That report also highlights disparities between brick-and-mortar charters and traditional public schools; traditional schools overall retain an edge in academic-performance scores over charters. But funding and policy decisions seem to be based on the fallacy that all charters are created equal and, by definition, are all better than district schools. That's clearly not the case.