Few parents are satisfied when their child gets a bad grade on their report card. But for years, Pennsylvania's charter schools have not gotten high marks from organizations that push for high-quality options for students. Yet, like a neglectful parent, the state legislature's inaction is making the problem worse. For the sake of our kids, that's got to change.
Pennsylvania placed in the bottom half of all states in national rankings prepared by three respected pro-charter organizations, the Center for Education Reform, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the National Association of Charter Schools. To be highly ranked, a state must reward high-performing charter schools, cut red tape, and close poorly performing operators.
Neither Pennsylvania's 20-year-old charter law nor the revisions to the law proposed in House Bill 97 does those things. The bill, currently being considered by the Pennsylvania House, needs considerable work to get the job done.
There's no debating that a small group of high-quality charters in the Commonwealth effectively educate students who struggle in their home districts. But the sector's two-decade track record is far from impressive. Only about 42 percent of third- to eighth-grade charter students passed the reading portion of the PSSA, the state's standardized test. For math, the scores were worse, with only 21 percent of the students performing on grade level. Considering only cyber charter students, the results were even more grim: 61 percent of reading and 85 percent of math test-takers failed to reach proficiency.
Unfortunately, too many charter schools are among the state's poorest performing schools. Only 28 of the 161 brick-and-mortar charters earned a "good" grade on the Department of Education's quality report card – the School Performance Profile. None of the 14 cyber charters has ever gotten a passing grade.
With these results in hand, it's clear that charter school students need higher quality options. Sure, the same can be said about many traditional schools. However, charters were created to find out whether unshackling the delivery of instruction from heavy government regulation could result in a leap in the share of high-achieving students. Sadly, that level of success has been reached in less than 20 percent of the charter schools in the commonwealth.
Nonetheless, school districts will spend about $1.5 billion in charter tuition payments this year — with $415 million alone going to the cyber school companies. Moreover, as districts pay out more to charters each year, they must also absorb the cost of losing students.
Yet, instead of setting its sights on "best practice" charter school laws that boost the returns for everyone, H.B. 97 pays lip service to performance, but allows charters that fail to show strong academic gains to be renewed and, worse yet, permits reauthorization of failing charter schools for five years. No provisions are included to shut down these schools quickly so that students have a better shot at learning what they need to succeed, and taxpayers are left holding the bag for failing schools.
Strong charter laws contain common-sense provisions. High-quality charter applications should be approved, and only those schools meeting academic and fiscal standards of accountability should be allowed to grow. Standard processes and procedures for reviewing applications, renewals, amendments and terminations should be adopted. Chronically poor-performing schools should be expeditiously and permanently closed.
To that end, Public Citizens for Children and Youth created a 21-point checklist to guide the Assembly in ensuring that the practices that boost charter performance end up in state law. If the state can adopt legislation that checks each box off the list, Pennsylvania's charter law can finally shed its dunce cap reputation and move to the head of the class.
Tomea Sippio-Smith is education director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth.