PCPCS President testifies on behalf of Charter Schools before the House Education Committee.
August 01, 2011
The following is a transcript of the testimony of Lawrence F. Jones, President of the Pennsylvania Coalition for Public Charter Schools, given to the the PA House Education Committee in Philadelphia on Thursday July 28th.
Good afternoon Chairman Clymer, Chairman Roebuck, members of the Education Committee, members of the legislature, and audience members. My name is Lawrence F. Jones, Jr, and I am testifying in my role as the President of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools (PCPCS). I am also the CEO and Founding Team member of the Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School, a charter school serving 425 students in grades 5 to 8 in Southwest Philadelphia. Before presenting my testimony in my role with the Coalition, I would like to first congratulate the students, staff, administration, and board of the Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School, Inc. for having made AYP for the 5th straight year and recently being rated as investment grade by Standard and Poor’s rating agency. With an extensive waiting list and a history of continued academic and community improvement, RAPCS exemplifies the charter and school choice movement in Pennsylvania. I am proud to be associated with this fine entity.
I thank you for indulging my celebration of the school where I am employed and also thank you for this opportunity to represent PCPCS at this most important hearing. PCPCS supports and advocates for the right of every parent to have public school options. We believe that high quality public charter schools provide parents with educational options and the opportunity to help ensure that every child receives a sound education, regardless of race, creed, zip code, or economic status. As you know, since their inception in 1997, Pennsylvania’s charter schools have grown to become a shining example of school reform in our Commonwealth. With more than 90,000 enrolled across the state, charter schools have proven to be both programmatically and fiscally viable reform options to the traditional public school system. I am here to discuss the positive impact of charter schools in Pennsylvania, obstacles to the continued growth and/or success of the charter movement in Pennsylvania, possible improvements to remove or lessen obstacles, and I will also attempt to debunk various myths related to charter schools. Of course, I look forward to answering any questions that you may have.
Since the inception of charter schools in Pennsylvania in 1997, there has been a record of academic and programmatic success, mixed with innovation that has made the charter school movement one of the most successful school reforms in Pennsylvania history. Since 1997, there have been more than 140 charter schools created in Pennsylvania. Academically, charters have provided a sound public school option to thousands of parents. Academic and instructional innovation have resulted in increased learning opportunities in charters. Whether it be arts based programs, year round schedules, immersion in Project Based Learning, Latin instruction, or the ability to provide virtually endless course offerings via cyber education, Pennsylvania’s charters have become a vital part of the public school landscape.
In Philadelphia, charters have routinely outperformed the traditional school district in achieving Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). Additionally, charters have successfully addressed a key initiative identified my Mayor Michael Nutter, that being increasing high school graduation rates. According to Pennsylvania Department of Education data released this year, Philadelphia’s charter schools serving high school grades had an average reported graduation rate of 88%. The same data indicates that district schools posted a 73% graduation rate (70% if magnet and special admissions schools are removed).
One area that has received little attention or study related to charter school impact on communities, is the community redevelopment realized by charter schools. Despite receiving virtually no facilities funding, charter schools have been able to purchase, renovate, and/or construct state of the art school facilities. In communities across the state, charters are transforming vacant, abandoned, or underutilized buildings into thriving educational centers.
Perhaps the most telling evidence of the success of public charters schools is the overwhelming demand for charters among parents. Currently, there are more than 30,000 students on charter school waiting lists, with more than 20,000 currently waiting for charter school admission in Philadelphia. A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts indicated that 62% of all parents surveyed believed that the growth of charter schools is good. The survey also indicated that 90% of charter school parents rated their children’s schools as good or excellent.
Despite the success and growth of charters since 1997, there are several myths and untruths that are presented routinely as facts regarding charter schools. For example:
Charter Schools are Private Schools: In reality, charter schools are public schools. Students attending charters are public school students and employees of charter schools are public school employees
Charter Schools do not take PSSA’s and have no accountability: Charter schools not only are required to participate in the PSSA’s, they are held accountable under the No Child Left Behind legislation and a litany of accountability measures including;
- Federal Title I audits and reports
- Annual independent financial audits
- Participation in PIMS
- Submitting an annual Charter School Annual Report to PDE
- Local audits, laws, and regulations related to buildings, food service, etc….
- Special education laws
- Five year charter renewals
- Cyclical Compliance Monitoring by the state
- Submission of Annual Financial Reports
- English Language Learner reports
Charter schools do not have to provide special education services: Charters are accountable for providing special education services under federal law. Additionally, schools must provide for students with section 504 accommodations and other disabilities. Charters provide academic services, speech and language, physical therapy, occupational therapy, behavioral support, and counseling when needed
Charter schools pick only the best students: By law, charters cannot discriminate based upon race, academic performance, disability, etc… Additionally, charter schools enroll a high percentage of minorities, at risk, and impoverished students nationally. Keep in mind that many students leave their traditional schools because they are not successful and have been disenfranchised
The charter school movement has experienced a tremendous amount of success. However, the true potential of the movement and reform possible has been slowed. To realize the true impact of charter schools, various obstacles must be addressed and ultimately removed. Top priorities for charter schools must be high quality and accountability. Let me be clear, PCPCS stands for high quality public charter schools and supports a system of rigorous, equitable, fair, and transparent accountability. Recent legislation proposed in the House and Senate can aid in addressing both quality and accountability. Having a strong authorizer with an equally strong and robust system of accountability pushes quality to new levels. Such a system ensures that schools functioning at a high level continue to do so and schools that are in need of improvement are provided with a prescription and limited timeframe to improve. Schools failing to improve or function at a high level should be closed by the authorizer. Schools that fail to follow appropriate fiscal or ethical guidelines are a threat to the charter school movement. These outliers do not represent the vast majority of Pennsylvania’s charter schools and PCPCS supports an authorizer and/or legislation that ensure a fair means of identifying bad actors in our movement. Schools that fail to educate all children go against the very heart of the charter movement. We do not condone or support such behavior.
Developing a strong quality indicator that takes into account the following attributes is key in the success of charter schools:
- Academic achievement via test scores, growth measures (value added), and alternative measures
- Organizational compliance
- Fiscal compliance
- Governance and ethical compliance
- Parent satisfaction
A fair and equitable authorizer will also address the issue of continued charter growth. Currently, school districts are the gate keeper for charters in every community. Having the school district decide whether or not a competing school entity can open is anything but fair. Some have equated this to Burger King authorizing Wendy’s. That sort of competition is not good for the fast food market and is highly detrimental to the ability for Pennsylvania’s parents to experience real choice. In areas like Philadelphia, growth of charter and especially new charters has slowed tremendously. In many suburban and rural districts, charter schools have no realistic chance of gaining a fair chance to open, despite the fact that many suburban districts have achievement gap percentages that equal or exceed those of Pennsylvania’s distressed urban areas. Parental choice should not be replaced by providing options for how districts will run schools. Choice allows for parents to be key participants in their children’s education. It empowers parents, students, and communities.
Another barrier to the future success of charters in Pennsylvania is centered on funding. In the current economic climate, everyone is sensitive to funding needs and the scarcity of resources. However, fundamental fairness should prevail regardless of whether resources are scarce or bountiful. Students should be funded in an equitable manner. Currently, the average public charter school student in Philadelphia receives more than $2,000 less than the average traditional public school student. Consider the various funding streams that are kept from charter schools and their students;
- No construction funding and/or reimbursement
- Facilities funding limited to a nominal rental reimbursement
- Charter schools do not have access to the state’s municipal bond pool
- Charter schools are not part of the state’s intercept provision law, which would improve credit ratings, thereby saving charters millions in interest costs
- Charters are funded at only 80% of traditional public school funding
- Charters do not have access to block grants and several competitive grants due to their status as an LEA, not a district
At the time of the Brown vs. Board of Education case, the NAACP found that on average white students in Topeka were funded at $150.00 per child, while Black students were funded at $50.00 per child. The landmark Brown decision identified separate but equal as unconstitutional. Years later, the Brown III case came about because of the slow actual implementation of the original Brown decision. Those with the ability to move to different parts of the community were able to create and have their children attend preferred schools. This was not in the spirit of the Brown decision. Today, children in Pennsylvania who cannot afford to move to preferred districts or school catchment areas have a limited chance for choice, charter schools. However, is it fundamentally fair that children should receive less resources simply because their parents have chosen to take advantage of an option they were afforded by law?
In closing, it is clear to me that we are at a pivotal time in Pennsylvania’s education reform movement. The early success of charter schools can either be a firm foundation upon which a new child centered system of public education will be built, or another attempt at reform that was bastardized and destroyed by the status quo. To ensure the brightest possible future for our children and our state, I implore each of you to frame every discussion on public education around what is best for our children, rather than what is best for a specific system, whether that system be traditional school districts or charter schools. We must begin and end each discussion with what is best for children. I thank you for your time and consideration of this most important matter.