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Pa. charter movement gets poor grades from advocacy group

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

A national charter advocacy organization has ranked Pennsylvania near the bottom of 18 states evaluated for the robustness of its charter movement.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools evaluated states based on the organization’s measures of growth, innovation and quality. The report also gave low marks to the state law governing charters.

The poor ratings were due in part to a drop in the academic performance of charters compared to traditional public schools. Between 2012-13 and 2013-14, the period studied, the percentage of charters performing in the bottom two categories of the state’s accountability system increased from 60 to 66 percent. Likewise, the proportion of charters performing in the top two categories of the state’s accountability system declined from 18 percent to 14 percent.

At the same time, the report said that charters serve a higher proportion of low-income students and students of color.

Last year, 7 percent of the state’s public school students were in charters, according to the report. But in Philadelphia, which has half the charter schools in the state, about one-third of students in publicly funded schools attend charters.

Charters in Pennsylvania are almost exclusively located in low-income urban areas, including Pittsburgh, Reading, and York, but the report compared their outcomes to state public schools as a whole.

“While many successful charter public schools operate in Pennsylvania, the performance of the movement as a whole needs to improve,” the report said.

Charters, as a whole, performed worse academically than traditional public schools, according to the report, which used widely quoted national data from CREDO, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University. It did not compare charter achievement results to traditional public schools in their own districts.

In another study, CREDO did conclude that students in charters in Philadelphia made more gains than comparable students in District schools, noting also that charters enroll lower proportions of low-income and special education students and English language learners.

The NAPCS report urges Pennsylvania to adopt additional authorizing options, a move that charter proponents badly want, but which has been staunchly opposed by Philadelphia and other school districts. At present, only school districts can authorize charters within their boundaries. Several school districts can combine to create a regional charter, and the state approves cyber charters.

Another CREDO study found that cyber charter schools have a negative impact on student learning. More than 34,000 students – a quarter of those enrolled in charters in Pennsylvania – attend 14 cyber charters, all authorized by the state.

Other states allow universities and other entities to approve charters. A bill pending in the Pennsylvania legislature would expand charter authorizing by creating a statewide achievement district, giving the state Department of Education authority to require turnarounds, including charter conversion, in five of the state’s lowest-achieving schools each year.

For the last several years, the School Reform Commission has sought to limit new charters in the city, citing financial pressures, although it has continued to convert low-performing District schools to charters. Since the period covered by this report, the state legislature required the SRC to reopen the charter pipeline in Philadelphia in return for giving the city more authority to raise taxes for schools. The SRC approved five new charters for opening this year and three more for next year.

Robert Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition for Public Charter Schools, said in a statement that most charters in Pennsylvania serve “students who have failed in their district school and see charters as their last resort. The results from those schools will drive down averages when included with charter schools that are truly outstanding. What has to be done is to look at each of the under-performing schools relative to their mission and either help them improve or close them down.”

The SRC has designated several low-performing charter schools for closure, but the appeals process can take years and charters can challenge the closure in court. One, Community Academy, won its battle and remains open with more than 1,000 students.

The report found that between 2010 and 2015, 58 public charter schools opened in Pennsylvania, taking the state total to 176. In a similar period, just 11 charters closed between 2009 and 2014.

The report also tracked what it called “special purpose” charters and included in this category schools at opposite ends of the philosophical spectrum. For instance, 14 percent of charters in the state have a “no excuses” discipline policy, while 12 percent have an unstructured Montessori/Waldorf education approach. Other “special purposes” include a focus on STEM subjects, single-sex enrollment, arts – and schools established to be “purposely diverse.” According to the report, there are no such schools in that last category in Pennsylvania.

Although just 13 percent of the state’s students are African American, 44 percent of the state’s charter school students are African American. The total non-white population in charters is 64 percent, compared to 28 percent for the state as a whole.

The report gave low marks to the state’s charter school law because it “allows primarily local school district authorizers, provides insufficient accountability and inadequate funding to charters.” On the positive side, the report said, the law doesn’t put caps on charter school growth and provides enough autonomy.

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