Why Pennsylvania Needs a Statewide Independent Authorizer for Charter Schools
May 14, 2012
Visit www.ChildrenPA.com and take two minutes to let your legislator know you want to see an independent authorizer in Pennsylvania.
After more than 14 years of operation and experience in Pennsylvania and from educators in 39 other states, we know what makes for high-performing charter schools – dedicated teachers, involved parents, individualized attention, exceptional curriculums, enlightened leadership, and strong authorizers. None of this is surprising, and with the exception of the strong authorizer, everyone is identical to what makes a high-performing traditional public school. So let’s take a closer look at the issue of authorizers as a unique and fundamental component in the success or failure of charters.
Under current Pennsylvania law, school districts are the sole authorizers for brick and mortar charter schools and this sole authorizer philosophy has, for the most part, been a failure in both nurturing good charter schools and closing bad ones. There are some school districts that are doing an excellent job of providing strong charter authorization, but many are not for two primary reasons.
First, charter schools are often viewed as competition to be eliminated rather than partners to be challenged and nurtured. There are numerous examples throughout the state where high-performing charters have been denied renewals for unstated or illegal reasons and well-deserving charter applicants have seen their applications for new charters denied because the districts are well aware of the expense of the appeal process. Many Pennsylvania charter operators feel they are participating in a football game in which all of the linesmen, back judges, and referees are employees of the other team.
Second, most school districts have proven to be unwilling or unable to close down under-performing charters. Since 1997, only a handful of brick and mortar charter schools in Pennsylvania have been closed. There are under-performing charter schools that deserve to be shuttered for the sake of the children, but districts have never demonstrated the willingness to do so.
Part of the problem is that there is absolutely no consistency in processes, procedures, forms, methodologies, metrics, or accountability measures anywhere in the state. Every school district was left to develop their own, and they did so without talking with each other. The result is a confusing mash up of different, and sometimes contradictory processes and procedures, but most importantly, there is absolutely no consistent quantifiable measurement process to assess performance.
A strong, independent state authorizer can provide consistency, quantifiable performance standards, independent assessment, and the guts to make charters perform to those standards.
In Pennsylvania, the sole authorizer for cyber charter schools is the State Department of Education. Authorizing and renewing cyber school charters has been inconsistent at best. Delays on responses to cyber charter school renewal requests have exceeded six months. The department is expected to deal with the enormity of public school issues for five hundred public districts, one hundred and forty five charter schools and twelve cyber charter schools. Adding the new dimensions of Cyber school oversight to the already challenging responsibilities of the department has not worked well since 2002. An independent authorizer with some background in the dimensions of online learning and with a focus on charter schools would substantially improve this process.
In the states that are realizing the greatest benefit for their children from the charter school concept, strong, independent authorizers are a given. It is a national best practice.
Furthermore, limiting the creation of independent authorizers to only schools with the lowest academic performance results is both discriminatory and demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of why parents choose charter schools.
Fundamentally, parents choose to send their children to a charter school so that their child has a better opportunity for a brighter future. But that decision is not based as often as you might think solely on the academic performance of the school the child is in, but rather on issues such as safety, individual attention, and discipline. Eliminating the opportunity for any parent in any school whose child is being bullied, whose learning issues are not being addressed, or who is forced every day into an environment that does not encourage learning is choice and freedom denied.
As the legislature embarks upon charter school reform, a strong, independent authorizer will guarantee accountability and higher quality of charter schools across our great Commonwealth.