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Approve Charter School Reform

October 03, 2012

Keep Competition Thriving in Education: Approve Charter School Reform

Lawmakers have an opportunity in the few days left in the 2012-13 legislative session to make a 15 year-old charter school system, with a shining track record in Pennsylvania, even better. These reform proposals, however, are stalled in the General Assembly. The differences are over the approach. 

One of the key hold-ups in the talks is, on its surface, not a hold-up at all – if you remove the powerful public education lobbying groups from the mix. The controversial provision would remove a local school district’s power to deny the establishment of a charter school within its jurisdiction.

“If we accept the fact that the charter schools are in competition with traditional education – and they are – then why are we letting the school districts decide their fate,” said PMA’s Executive Director David N. Taylor.  “It’s like Apple being allowed to review a Microsoft product line before it goes on the market.”

Governor Tom Corbett prefers placing authority for the establishment of a charter school on the state level out of the reach of the school districts. A House version would create a Board that could overrule a district’s decision not to allow a charter school. The legislative proposals also contain provisions that improve oversight in the schools, provide a process to resolve funding conflicts and raise operating standards.

The evidence is piling up that charters schools are a good product at a good price. The Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools compared the performance of their schools with traditional public schools after the 2011-2012 results for the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSA) scores were released. The contrast between traditional district schools and charter schools was striking. A higher percentage of charter schools achieved Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) statewide. In Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the percentages of charter schools that made AYP were much greater than the traditional district schools in those cities.

  • Statewide, 49.85 percent of traditional school districts made AYP, compared to 58.97 percent of Pennsylvania’s charter schools. 
  • In Pittsburgh, seven of the 57 district schools—or 12 percent—made AYP for the 2011-2012 school year, according to results from the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE). Among Pittsburgh’s charter schools, 57 percent achieved AYP status.
  • Forty-nine of Philadelphia’s 80 charter schools, or 61 percent, achieved AYP status, compared to only 13 percent of the traditional schools in the School District of Philadelphia.

This achievement becomes more impressive when considering public charter schools are disproportionately serving the poorest and most at-risk students in the state. According to the latest numbers from Department of Education, 62 percent of charter school students come from low-income families, compared to 39 percent of students in traditional school districts.

“Charter schools across the state are providing high-quality educational options to students, and these numbers reinforce that fact,” said Lawrence F. Jones Jr., President of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools. “It is particularly striking to see the contrast in the state’s biggest cities, where many of our charter school students come from low-income families. These schools are providing hope and opportunity for students throughout the state.”

Pennsylvania taxpayers are saving money as well with the charter schools.  Under current law, public money follows a child who enrolls in a charter school. The amount of money is based on the average per student spending of his resident school district. The charter school law prohibits reimbursement for a list of items including buying new facilities, construction, community and junior colleges.

A Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives analysis shows that overall charter schools spend less than traditional public schools because they receive less. At the same time, K-12 education spending in the traditional public schools spending has doubled in the past 15 years. Staff has increased by 35,000 statewide, while enrollment has consistently dropped.

The Commonwealth Foundation Analysis:

“In practice, the only policy that ensures effective, efficient spending in Pennsylvania is school choice. School choice injects competition in our public education system by offering family alternatives in our public, private and charter school,” wrote Priya Abraham of the Commonwealth Foundation. “School administrators in Pittsburgh, for example, freely admit that competition from charter schools forced them to cut excessive spending and streamline. And having these different schooling options in Pennsylvania already saves taxpayers $4.3 billion a year.”

Chart Compiled by the Commonwealth Foundation
school spending chart

 “The bottom line is that charter schools are proof that competition works in public education,” Taylor said. “Allow even more competition and we’ll get even better results.”