- Schools Are Closed, But Educational Inequality Remains - May 8, 2020
- Coronavirus: The Impact of School Closures - March 24, 2020
- Standardized Testing's Negative Affect on Math Education - February 11, 2020
- What Becoming a Math Teacher Leader Taught Me - November 14, 2019
- Trauma in Schools – Teachers Are Asked to Handle Too Much - October 16, 2019
- Teaching is Difficult When Administrative Support is Lacking - October 1, 2019
- Teachers - Your Impact on Students is Greater Than You Know! - July 7, 2019
- Columbine Shooting 20 Years Later – Our Children Are Still Dying - June 11, 2019
- Empathy: The Key to Better Behavior in the Classroom - May 2, 2019
- Mathematical Conversations Aid Problem Solving - April 17, 2017
This is the first in a series on school choice. I am beginning this series of articles with my home state of Pennsylvania where I taught for 30 years and where I have firsthand experience with school choice.
The PA Charter School Act
School choice came to Pennsylvania through the PA Charter School Act of 1997. Here are the basics of the act.
*Charters are independent public schools chartered by the district in which they reside. (Regional charters can serve more than one district.) Charters can be granted for no more than five years.
* Charters must be public non-profit entities formed by teachers, parents, institutions of higher learning or museums. They must follow the rules of the school code for public schools. Employees are considered to be public employees and the board of trustees is a public employer.
* Funding is provided by the state and the local school district for each student enrolled. Charters must provide ongoing access to records/facilities. Evaluation by an independent consultant will take place at the end of 5 years.
The Early Years
Because charter schools must receive their charter from the school district in which they reside and that school district will lose money for each student going to the charter, many districts in the early years simply turned down charter applications. But then something changed. In 1998, the PA legislature passed Act 46 allowing the takeover of any distressed school district by the state. As it turned out however, the takeover would only be for districts of the first class (based on population) and this only applied to Philadelphia. Three years later Act 83 was passed establishing a School Reform Commission (SRC) to replace the Board of Education in the event of a state takeover. In its final format the SRC would consist of three appointees by the governor and two by the mayor, essentially ceding control of the district to the Governor of the state. In 2001 then Governor Schweiker used the act to take over the School District of Philadelphia. This action meant that the SRC rather than the local school board would be granting charters in Philadelphia. But Philadelphia wasn’t alone. In nearby Delaware County the Chester-Upland School District was declared financially distressed in 2000 and a receiver was appointed to improve the fiscal situation. Chester Upland still retained its elected school board.
After the State Intervention
Let me note that at the time of this action the PA Charter School Office had only two full time employees to monitor the charters once they were established.
The SRC in Philadelphia quickly began going after schools that were not performing well. These schools were threatened with being reconstituted by removing either the administration and/or the entire staff and starting with new personnel or they would be turned into charter schools. In addition, the SRC sought applications from those who wanted to begin charter schools in the city. Large numbers of charters have been granted in Philadelphia. Some of the schools have been quite successful and have established several locations in the city. Others have not performed better than other city schools for a number of years but have retained their charters.
Recently two closed due to lack of financing returning those children to neighborhood schools. This put the District in charge of setting up a re-entry procedure and notifying parents of how their children will be placed. And unfortunately a few have made newspaper headlines for violating several parts of charter school law including misuse of taxpayer funds. One CEO was tried in court and members of another charter took plea deals and went to prison.
The Chester-Upland School District has a slightly different situation than Philadelphia. It has been cash strapped for many years and matters have gotten worse because of payments for special education students to charter schools and private institutions. Currently the district is required to pay $40,000 per special ed student in charter schools no matter how much the education actually costs. This amount is draining resources from the district’s own special ed students who are educated for far less money. The district’s receiver, Francis V. Barnes, who along with Governor Wolf and Secretary of Education Rivera has gone to Commonwealth Court to have the current funding formula changed.
The issue as explained by Mr. Barnes in an open letter is that the district is required to pay the maximum amount for every special ed student in a charter no matter how mild or severe the disability is. The Chester Upland school district is educating the largest number of students with the most serious disabilities while most of the special ed students enrolled in the district’s three charters have the least serious disabilities. Because of the funding formula the three charters are receiving $40,000 a year per student to educate them even if they are not spending that amount on each special ed student. This is occurring at the same time that the school district itself is short of money to educate the students enrolled in the district’s schools.
There are currently many issues in the state of Pennsylvania around charter schools. Some of the problem is the result of turning over/granting charters to private groups. The original charter law did not anticipate nor did it mention the granting of charters to for profit companies. The result has been a problem in particular for districts with a large number of low income children and little income from property taxes. While I believe that school choice in the form of charter schools can be beneficial, I don’t believe that they should be financed by taking away services from students in traditional public schools especially when most of the charters run by private groups are receiving large donations from private business to build state of the art facilities that the traditional schools lack.
How are charters being handled in your state? I’d love to hear from other states.