WHO GETS to make key decisions regarding the future of public education? Those who send their kids to schools? The taxpayers who pay for it? Lawmakers who provide school funding? Experts who study academic data and performance?
The good news is that everyone has a stake in education. The bad news is that the most critical decisions related to how schools function are in the hands of a few: lawmakers who decide on how much money the schools get. In this state, those decisions are too often made in the absence of thoughtful analysis or a basic grasp of the facts.
In the past few weeks, two studies have raised the issue of charter schools' impact on the School District, highlighting flaws in the current structure of both granting and funding charters. The most comprehensive study is by Public Citizens for Children and Youth, which reviewed 40 applicants for new charters, and has called for the School Reform Commission to approve none of them.
The reasons are not new, but PCCY provides a depth of analysis and level of detail that is too often missing from discussions about charters.
Right now, 84 charter schools educate 61,000 students, making it the second largest district in the state (after Philadelphia School District). Every new charter student requires the district to move a per-pupil allocation from the district's budget; some of those dollars used to be reimbursed by the state, but are no longer. District costs don't get reduced proportionately, so the impact of even one new charter school would have serious financial impact on the district. The impact of 40 would be devastating. PCCY reports that if all the applications were approved, charter payments would exceed $1 billion, 42 percent of the district's budget.
The city controller and the state auditor general have expressed concern about the impact of this funding formula. A recent Pew report also outlined the financial realities of charters.
But funding is only part of the problem. PCCY found that nearly half the applicants operate schools where less than half the students are on grade level in reading or math. Also, most operate schools with fewer minority and low-income students than the district's average enrollment. Most worrisome: Some of the applicants are under investigation.
As we have pointed out in the past, the state has created in charters a separate school district without providing the funding or oversight that would ensure that all charters provide positive alternatives. Some charters perform well. Many fall below the performance of district schools. Why the race to open more until the data about which ones actually work (and why) is established and made public?
Too many lawmakers in Harrisburg believe in charters blindly, without acknowledging the facts. That includes Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai, whose comments last week suggest only a glancing awareness of the reality of charters. Turzai claimed that 27 of the 40 applicants are doing a "bang-up job" and claims that "charter schools have been getting better results for less money." That's only a partial truth.