By Robert Maranto
For the more than 34,000 Philadelphia children on waiting lists for charter schools, the School Reform Commission's recent decision to restrict charter enrollment is one less thing to be thankful for this holiday season.
Charter schools are public schools. They can't discriminate in admissions, impose religion, or charge tuition, and their students must take state tests. Yet like private schools, they have considerable autonomy over personnel, schedules, and budgets, and they don't have to kowtow to central-office bureaucrats. Charters have been championed by liberals like President Obama and conservatives like Mitt Romney.
That broad support makes the SRC's decision particularly perplexing. With no public notice or input, it suspended parts of state law to decree that new charter enrollment can't be funded unless preapproved by the SRC. Aside from the questionable legality of this rewriting of law by an unelected, extra-constitutional body, it will hurt Philadelphia students for three reasons.
First, while city charter schools struggled early on, they have increasingly outpaced district schools as they've matured. According to the latest figures from the district's Office of Accountability, 75 percent of charter students graduated from high school within four years, compared with 60 percent in traditional district schools.
The Pennsylvania Value-Added Assessment System, which measures how much students learn in a year, shows Philadelphia charters have exceeded Pennsylvania's average achievement gains, while the city's traditional public schools have not. If we want city students to learn more, we should be expanding the charter sector, not shrinking it. We should also do more to learn from the best charters.
Second, while the SRC claims we can't afford more charter schools, the full financial picture shows they save money. School finance expert and charter advocate Michael Whisman reports that for the 2010-11 school year, traditional city schools spent an average of $14,578 per child, while charters received only $9,873 a student. So each student attending a charter saves $4,705. That money can be used to improve programs and raise teachers' salaries.
Finally, we can't ignore the views of kids and parents. A great many children in charter schools - probably most - enroll only after having done badly in traditional public schools. For those kids and parents, charters offer a second chance.
I'm on the unpaid board of the nonprofit Achievement House Cyber Charter School, which serves 146 Philadelphia students. Our average new student is two years below grade level. And as in traditional public schools, not all of our students make it. But given a second chance, many flourish.
One parent wrote of a former student: "No doubt her success is due to strong leadership and the right foundation at AHCCS. She is attending the Art Institute of Philadelphia for fashion marketing, and achieved a 3.6 GPA for the first marking period!" Similarly, in an anonymous survey, a student marveled that in contrast to her prior school, "My special ed. teacher last year called and emailed me and my mom all the time. She was watching my work. She called when she seen I was having trouble."
In short, student performance, school finances, and parent and student sentiment all show that Philadelphia's charter sector should grow. Only the bureaucrats stand in the way.
The long-term solution is action by state lawmakers, who will soon have another chance to provide much-needed charter reform. Until then, the SRC must remain accountable to current laws and agreements, and it must overturn its reckless decision to single out charter schools and punish families seeking a more promising future. The more than 47,000 Philadelphia children served by charter schools - and the more than 34,000 who would like to join them - are counting on it.