YDR: Time for charter school reform
March 28, 2013
The governor and state lawmakers have a pretty crowded agenda up there in Harrisburg, with pension reform, lottery and liquor store privatization and a number of other issues, but one thing state leaders really need to accomplish this year is reform of the charter school system in Pennsylvania.
From funding to authorization and accountability, lawmakers need to get a better handle on this burgeoning sector of public education.
Charter schools can be very good – recent report cards from the Pennsylvania Campaign for Achievement Now placed a number of charter schools among the top 10 schools in the state in various categories and grade levels.
Charter schools can also be mediocre – none of our local charter schools have posted standardized test scores that are significantly better than the York city school district’s.
With a growing amount of public funding going to charter schools (both for-profit and non-profit), how can we be assured that only high-quality charter operators are allowed to set up schools and remain in business? How can we weed out the fly-by-night charter operators and shut down charters that are not making the grade?
For that matter, how can we reform the funding mechanism for charters to a system that doesn’t penalize public school districts that are already struggling with funding?
These are tough issues, but this is the year to tackle them. It won’t get any easier as time goes on and there are more and more charters and cyber-charters to deal with.
This issue is especially important in York, where the YorkCounts group has proposed transforming the entire city school district into charter schools – a proposal that seems to have a pretty good chance of being adopted by chief recovery officer David Meckley.
But even YorkCounts officials agree reforms are needed in the state charter school system – particularly accountability reforms.
Another issue that must be addressed is the system of authorizing and renewing charters – a process that has become a litigious, time-consuming battleground for districts. Just look at the York school district, which became embroiled in extensive battles over authorization and renewal of some local charters. The district has even hired an attorney to handle these cases. It’s a huge distraction and expense.
Couldn’t this process be better handled by a single state entity?
Yes – if the agency were set up properly and charged with rigorously evaluating charters rather than rubber-stamping them.
A recent news story noted that many other states have successful state charter authorization agencies. Such entities can be depoliticized and independent – ideally housed at or attached to a respected institution of higher learning, say, Penn State, the University of Pennsylvania or Pitt.
Such an entity would appear to be better qualified to assess charter proposals than unpaid local school board members or state political appointees.
Granted, some argue that process would take power away from local communities, and that would be worrisome if a state charter authorizer were politically designed or ideologically driven. But a board modeled on New York’s university-based charter authorization system would be an improvement over what we have now, which is chaotic, to put it mildly.
Charter schools are probably here to stay. They can be a good alternative for students and parents whose needs are not met by their public schools.
But we’re doing everyone a disservice if we allow inept, disreputable operators to suck in tax dollars and spit out students who score no better – or worse – than their public school counterparts.
We need a better system in Pennsylvania, and 2013 must be the year to make that a reality.