This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Charter schools in Pennsylvania are allowed to have a relatively high percentage of uncertified teachers and they are closed here less often than in other states, according to a new report by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Pennsylvania also has a high proportion of students in cyber charters.
The 15-page report, “How Charter School Governance in Pennsylvania and Philadelphia Measures Up,” examines the rules for starting and operating charter schools in 16 states, drawing comparisons in areas such as authorization process, oversight, closing rates, extent of waivers from rules governing traditional public schools, and friendliness to cyber charters.
Because each charter school serves as its own LEA, or legal education agency, charters can operate without many of the rules that govern traditional public schools. Over the years, that flexibility has sparked increasing debate in Pennsylvania, and particularly within the School District of Philadelphia, over how charters are authorized, regulated, renewed, and identified for closure, and whether too much freedom is given to charter operators.
“We are doing a lot to turn around schools in Philadelphia,” said Superintendent William Hite in a recent interview.
That turnaround has included 20 District schools being converted to charters under the Renaissance Schools initiative, which started in 2010 under former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. This school year, the District has recommended three more schools for charter conversion – Jay Cooke in Logan, Samuel Huey in West Philadelphia, and John Wister in Germantown – amid growing concerns among parents who say that neighborhood schools are being abandoned for charters with limited accountablity.
The Pew report compares how charters are operated in Pennsylvania with charter operations in California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin. The comparisons reveal that regulation varies among states and that there are more similarities than differences.
Take the issue of authorization. In Pennsylvania, the governing body of each local school district has the authority to start a brick-and-mortar charter school. In Philadelphia, that decision rests with the School Reform Commission, the five-member panel created by the state in 2001 to oversee the District. Similar authorization processes exist in five of the other 15 states studied – namely, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, and Maryland.
But in Massachusetts and New Jersey, the state education department has the sole responsibility to approve charters. The remaining eight states allow multiple authorizers, including non-government agencies such as universities. For example, in Minnesota, 17 school boards, 16 colleges and universities, and 14 nonprofit groups have authorized charter schools.
In the states studied, the report said, the greatest differences in rules governing charter schools are in the extent of waivers allowed. In Pennsylvania, charters are given “blanket waivers allowing them to set their own processes and operational rules while following state standards for overall academic performance and financial integrity,” the report states. But in Maryland, Michigan, and New Jersey, waivers are given on a case-by-case basis.
Most states allow blanket waivers from rules governing traditional public schools – such flexibility is the main reason charters were established to begin with. Allowing uncertified teachers is an example of a waiver. Pennsylvania allows an unusually high number of uncertified teachers, up to 25 percent of a school’s faculty. Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Ohio require all charter school teachers to have certifications. New York allows five teachers or 30 percent of the school’s faculty – whichever is smaller – to be uncertified, but such teachers must have previously worked as instructors or offer “exceptional experience” in a business, a profession, the arts, or the military.
Only the state can authorize cyber charters; there are now 14 in Pennsylvania and they enroll 28 percent of all students in charters – the second-highest percentage, after Ohio. But no cybers have been authorized since 2012, and none have met minimal state performance standards.
Charter growth in recent years has been slower in Pennsylvania than the median for all the states studied – 7.5 percent here compared to 9.4 percent. It also closes schools at a slower rate – 1.3 percent per year compared to 3.4 percent median.
Half the charter schools in Pennsylvania are in Philadelphia, and at one point, the SRC put a virtual moratorium on charter expansion, primarily because it drained finances from the District. The SRC has recently resumed some charter expansion under state law and has also stepped up charter closures.
Nationally, charters are permitted in 43 states and the District of Columbia. In the School District of Philadelphia, there are nearly 90 charter schools and the city’s charter school population accounts for about 30 percent (more than 60,000) of its public school students.