This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY) released a report Thursday that, once again, outlines how Pennsylvania’s charter school law ranks it among the worst in the country and offers a checklist for improving it.
The report finds that charters overall aren’t adding much value to the educational attainment of students, particularly those who are “historically underserved,” and especially considering how the $1.5 billion in funds that charters absorb leave districts with “stranded costs” that often reduce services in traditional schools.
“Charter school students are not outperforming their traditional school peers; results are mixed at best and extremely subpar at worse,” the report, called Expanding High Quality Charter School Options, declares. “Passing stronger legislation to link growth and charter renewal to student performance will encourage schools to strive for better student outcomes.”
In the 28 districts in Pennsylvania where at least 10 percent of the students attend charters, the report found, more students in traditional public schools met state reading and math standards than did students in charters.
Those districts include Philadelphia, where about one-third of students are in charters, although the report doesn’t break out the Philadelphia numbers. Half the charter schools in the state are in Philadelphia.
In these districts overall, 38 percent of students in traditional public schools met reading standards and 22 percent met math standards. In charters, 41 percent met reading standards and 20 percent met math standards. For traditionally underserved students, 43 percent in traditional schools and 34 percent in charters met reading standards; 26 percent in traditional schools reached math proficiency compared to 14 percent in charters.
PCCY calculated these percentages by retrieving school-level data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
The report described the results for cyber charters as “more alarming.” In those, 38 percent of students scored proficient in reading and less than 15 percent in math.
“Considering the significant investment school districts and taxpayers continue to make in charter schools, it is fiscally sound policy to enact a strong charter school law that stabilizes charter payment rates, holds charters accountable, provides autonomy, and defines high quality charter schools for students,” the report concludes.
The report was discussed at a roundtable Thursday morning that brought together lawmakers from both parties as well as local charter advocates and public school activists.
Donna Cooper, executive director of PCCY, said that in the discussion, there was agreement that the proposed legislation seeking to revise the 20-year-old charter law, known as House Bill 97, “needs work.”
On the report’s checklist of 21 things that a new charter law should do – from defining what “high quality” means, to offering expansion flexibility for “high flying” schools, to outlining clear criteria for closing those that are chronically failing – HB97 meets only one. That is creating a “fair standard application form” for use across the state.
“Given the likelihood that the leadership in the House and Senate would like to get a charter bill passed this session, we want to make sure that it’s a better bill than HB97 along the lines we recommended,” said Cooper.
Two influential legislators are among those vying for the Republican gubernatorial nomination – House Speaker Mike Turzai and State Sen. Scott Wagner from York. The primary is in May, and there could be pressure to push charter reform legislation, especially from big-pocketed charter backers.
Right now, there is not an alternative bill to HB97 that speaks to the goals for any revision that PCCY has emphasized. These four goals are provisions that will allow approval of only high-quality applicants, let high-quality charters grow, protect students and taxpayers from failing charters, and give students stability.
Although there is general agreement that the current charter law needs updating and improvement, charter proponents and advocates for traditional districts have been at loggerheads for several years over key components such as funding, expansion, and closing.
The report says: “Regardless of performance, charter costs keep rising for school districts and taxpayers. Adopting potent legislation that rewards high quality schools with an expedited renewal process and closes poor performers would encourage schools to strive for excellence.”
Now, it takes years to close a charter that is academically failing, operationally unsound, and financially unstable. Each school has the right to go through a state appeals process and ultimately to the courts. In a few cases, charters have abruptly closed down in the middle of such processes because they ran out of money, sending their students scrambling for alternatives.
For now, school districts have the legal edge in the tug of war over whether charter schools can add seats without explicit approval from their authorizing district. In a case involving a Philadelphia charter’s request for significant expansion, the state Supreme Court ruled in August that the 1997 charter law does not allow charters to unilaterally amend operating agreements if its authorizing district fails to act on a request. Nor does the state Appeals Board have the right to step in and approve the requested amendment in such cases, the court ruled.
Cooper said that PCCY is preparing another report that focuses on charter schools in the suburbs where, she said, enrollment is growing – especially cyber charter enrollment.
Sharif el-Mekki, principal of Mastery Shoemaker Charter School, said he thought that “there was a lot of common sense” in PCCY’s recommendations for how to improve the charter law, especially in allowing and supporting high-quality charters’ growth.
“Parents don’t care about the governance of a school,” he said, referring to whether a school is a charter or run by a district. “What they want is a school that works for them in their community, and that’s what we don’t have enough of. More quality, more access, more opportunities, that’s what we should be advocating for.”
He would like to see more data comparing individual charter schools with nearby neighborhood schools so that parents and guardians can make informed decisions.
“We should look at the data like a parent or grandparent would: Which school is better for my child, and do I have an option?” he said.
El-Mekki, who was part of the PCCY roundtable, said he agrees that low-performing charters should close, but he argues that there needs to be equal accountability for low-performing district-run schools, some of which have been struggling for a generation.
“If the bottom 10 percent of charter schools are closed, should the bottom 10 percent of district schools close as well, or is it just charters that should have that level of accountability?” he said.
That issue has been one of the sticking points in efforts to revise charter laws to crack down on those that are not doing well.
At the same time, el-Mekki said, he is “not confident in the General Assembly to get things done effectively and efficiently on behalf of children and the community,” and thinks that “we should continue to push and demand certain things around the … four guidelines that PCCY highlighted.”
He and Cooper agreed that it is essential to get rid of the “us vs. them” mentality in debating the charter law to a mindset focused on “improving access and opportunity.”
“Productive conversation on how to improve the law makes sense,” Cooper said.