Bethlehem Press

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Why it’s important to support Gov. Wolf’s Charter school reforms

Tuesday, February 11, 2020 by karen beck pooley BASD School Board member in Opinion

The reason I sought a school board position is because, in my opinion, public schools are one of the most (if not the most) important thing we as a community collectively do.

Over 90 percent of us learn to read and write, tackle math and science, find our passion and purpose, in public schools. They’re a springboard to opportunities of all kind. They anchor our neighborhoods. They train our future local leaders.

Supporting quality schools that do all of these things well is no small task, and it can be made even harder when state funding is insufficient and when state policies undercut, rather than strengthen, our public schools.

The governor has rightly recognized the decades’-old charter school law as one of these detrimental policies. In his words, Pennsylvania’s “law has gained national notoriety for being one of the most fiscally irresponsible [charter] laws in the nation.” The Auditor General has agreed, calling it “simply the worst charter school law in the United States.” And state Senator Pat Browne, R-16th, has stressed that we’re now at a “crisis point,” as the law as written threatens to have “significant detrimental effects on all of our students’ progress in school.”

This outdated law has serious consequences for public school districts, students and taxpayers. These include the costs of charter schools – how those costs fall on districts and how loosely they’re tied to charter schools’ own expenses, the transparency (or, more accurately, lack of transparency) of charter schools’ decision-making and how little say the public has in charters’ budgetary and programmatic decisions and how charters are not held accountable for meeting students’ needs.

There’s been a lot of talk about that first consequence, the cost of charter schools: Pennsylvania taxpayers are now spending close to $2 billion on charter schools each year. Bethlehem School District alone will spend nearly $31 million this school year and Lehigh Valley taxpayers now spend more than $100 million on charter schools annually.

Appallingly, these skyrocketing costs aren’t directly related to charter schools’ actual expenses – we’re sending what we as a district spend, on average, per student, not what they do. Two particularly egregious illustrations of this include taxpayer support for cyber charter schools, which receive the same amount of funding per student as brick-and-mortar schools even though it costs far less to run them, and the dollars sent to charter schools to educate special education students, which are also not reflective of the true cost of services charter school students with special needs require.

Where does all of this extra money go? Who knows? But tighter legislation could help us – the district and local taxpayers – find out. Revisions to the law could also give districts and taxpayers more say over charters’ costs.

Currently, the only type of “oversight” a school district and local school board has over charter schools is a review that happens once every five years. Should we have concerns with anything we find during these reviews, our only recourse – as a publicly elected school board – is to propose adjustments to the school’s charter or propose to rescind the charter entirely. Charters can appeal our decision, though, to the Commonwealth’s Charter Appeals Board. That board is heavily slanted in charters’ favor, which is why districts’ requests are typically denied. None of its members are directly affiliated with or bringing the perspective of traditional public schools to CAB deliberations (the one member filling CAB’s “school board member” position has been voted off his local school board), while three of its five members have direct ties to charter schools – as a teacher, parent or spouse of an administrator. All five CAB members were appointed by Governor [Tom] Corbett and all are serving long past the end-date of their initial term. (These terms ended as recently as June 2018 and as far back as June 2015).

As a result, districts’ oversight capabilities lack any kind of teeth. (I should mention that districts have no oversight of cyber charters at all. These schools are reviewed by Pennsylvania’s Department of Education and several of them have not been reviewed by PDE for well over five years.) The result is that the current charter school law really fails to make charter schools accountable: to the taxpayers paying their bills and to the students in their (real or virtual) classrooms.

On this issue of student success, a recent study by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found the “evidence shows that Pennsylvania has substantial numbers of under-performing charter schools” and that cyber charter schools’ student results, in particular, were “overwhelmingly negative” and called for “urgent attention” from education leaders and lawmakers.

So let’s give the Commonwealth’s outdated charter school law the attention it so desperately requires and balance representation on the Charter Appeals Board, to control charters’ costs (and who bears the brunt of them) and vastly increase charters’ accountability to do right by taxpayers and students.