HARRISBURG, PA – The Commonwealth Foundation provided important perspective today on Pennsylvania’s charter and cyber schools in response to Auditor General Jack Wagner’s recommendations, including a moratorium on expanding public schools of choice.
“Auditor General Wagner is aiming his fire at the wrong public schools. It is the district public schools that are bilking the taxpayers and denying children educational opportunities,” said Matthew Brouillette, president of the Commonwealth Foundation and a former teacher and charter school board member.
“Unlike district public schools, charter schools can be shut down for poor performance and parents can remove their children,” said Brouillette. “This is why parents are clamoring for more of these educational options for their children and trying to escape the district public schools. Why would Mr. Wagner suggest cutting off that lifeline for so many kids?”
Brouillette noted that charter and cyber schools often take children from failing district schools and must try to prepare them for state testing with very little or no time. Charter schools disproportionately serve low-income students and those struggling in traditional public schools, and tend to be far more popular in districts with low overall academic performance.
“This should not be surprising-these are the families who want and need educational opportunities the most,” said Brouillette. “Moreover, charter public schools are educating children at a lower cost to the taxpayers than are traditional district public schools.”
In 2008-09, district public schools spent over $13,140 per student while charter and cyber schools spent $1,500 less. Among cyber charters, per-pupil spending averaged just over $10,000. Because charter schools spend less than 90% of what traditional public schools spend, the savings to taxpayers amounted to over $109 million in 2008-09. Cyber schools alone amount to cost savings of almost $60 million.
“The savings to the school property taxpayers are significant, and the more we expand school choice options for parents the more we will save,” Brouillette noted.
While Pennsylvania’s traditional public school enrollment has declined over the last decade, charter school enrollment has surged. Since the opening of the first charter schools in Pennsylvania in 1997-98, charter school enrollment has increased every year, to over 73,000 students today. Cyber schools, added to the state law in 2001-02, have also proved increasingly popular, enrolling over 20,400 students today.
“Charter schools are clearly meeting a demand by parents who want educational options for their children,” said Brouillette. While the state requires numerous accountability standards for charter schools-including standardized testing and forcing schools to have a regular review of their charter every few years-the ultimate test for charter schools is parental choice. “If parents are not pleased with the school’s results, they can choose another or even return to their assigned district school. Unfortunately, too many parents still lack that kind of choice for their children.”
Brouillette also noted that charter schools have their problems too. “Charter and cyber schools are not perfect, by any means. Some schools have poor academic records, while others have been scandalized by administrators,” he said. “But unlike traditional public schools, these schools can be shut down and have their charter revoked, or they can be turned over to new management. Indeed these troubled schools have received disciplinary action, and many charters have been shut down over the years-a consequence that traditional public schools do not face.”
The Commonwealth Foundation then offered its own recommendations for improvement. “Lawmakers should apply the lessons and benefits of charters to all schools, including traditional district schools,” said Brouillette. The recommendations include:
- State and local funding should follow the child-all public schools should receive funding only when families choose to send their children there.
- All public schools should have charters that have to be renewed periodically. When schools fail to meet performance standards, they should have their charters revoked or management replaced.
- Families should be able to choose the public school-both inter- and intra-district-they send their children to, and schools should have to compete to attract students. Pennsylvania should end the “assignment system” whereby children’s schools are determined by their parents’ zip code.
“Charter schools provide educational offerings to thousands of Pennsylvania students, and parents increasingly choose charter schools over other educational options,” noted Brouillette. “It is troubling that traditional district schools view this competition as a threat. The truth is that both children and taxpayers benefit when parents have choices and schools must compete.”
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EDITOR’S NOTE: For more on public school spending, visit www.openPAgov.org to find out: How much education costs the average Pennsylvania taxpayer; what percentage of students passes basic achievement tests; how much each school district spends per pupil; the salaries of teachers and administrators; and whether student achievement test performance has increased or decreased in the last decade.
The Commonwealth Foundation (www.CommonwealthFoundation.org) is an independent, non-profit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg, PA.