Do charter schools work? That was the focus of a Pennsylvania Senate Education Committee hearing today. The 3-hour meeting featured five different panels discussing various aspects of charter schools in Pennsylvania. With charter proponents and opponents testifying—including the Commonwealth Foundation—there were some fireworks.
No one disputes that Pennsylvania’s charter school law needs to be reformed. An important package of reforms passed the House in June, but it awaits action in the Senate. Similarly, a Senate bill establishing a funding commission sits in the House. However, some of the panelists at today’s hearing go much farther than commonsense reform. They, like Gov. Wolf, want to cut funding, ban new schools, and cap enrollment.
When families choose a school, they consider a multitude of factors to determine if that school “works.” When people are trying to dictate schools for other parents, though, they usually focus on one definition: test scores. But test scores are poor indicators of future life outcomes, and studies have found parents know better than standardized tests which school is best for their children.
There is no singular definition of a school “working.” Parents actively choose to enroll their children in a charter school, which means that school “works” for the families that choose it. At least, it works better than their local district school. Each family may have different reasons a school works for them—safety, academics, atmosphere, schedule, or other needs. Parents often lump these reasons together, calling their preference a good “fit” for their children.
- Delaware County mom Stefanie D’Amico’s oldest son Bobby was relentlessly bullied in school. He needed an alternative, and Stefanie found relief for him at Agora Cyber Charter School. Now Bobby is succeeding academically and a martial arts champion.
- Eric Young graduated from Boys’ Latin Charter School in Philadelphia in 2011. At his district middle school, he had such behavior problems that an aide had to attend classes with him. Boys’ Latin founder David Hardy ensured Eric received the help he needed. As Eric put it, “If Hardy didn't start this school, I don't know where I would be. I wouldn't have graduated from college. I probably wouldn't have graduated from high school.”
- Philly mom Carolyn Holloway had three daughters who all attended charter schools. Her oldest daughter Kenyatta struggled with tests, but the extra attention and special pedagogy she received at Freire Charter Middle School helped her stop freezing up every time she sat down to one. Now she’s graduated and pursues a successful career.
- Before graduating a full year early, PA Cyber School student Sarah Hulse shared what cyber school meant for her: “PA Cyber taught me how to think outside the box, manage my time, and find my own path and my own educational choice. I’ve learned to seek opportunities. I know those are skills that will help me in college, my career, and beyond.”
- Brad and Emily Moore of Erie County have nothing but great things to say about their experience with Commonwealth Charter Academy: “The instructional time is incredibly well done and focused because the teachers don’t have the distractions that many typical bricks and mortar schools have.” Brad notes the flexibility has allowed his daughter to pursue her dreams in ballet as well as discover new passions, like photography.
Pennsylvania charter students are disproportionately low income and minority—the very kids a recent study by Stanford University found are most likely to benefit from charter schools when it comes to test scores. Even more importantly, these are also the students most likely to be trapped in failing and unsafe district schools.
Parents with higher incomes have many options—choosing to live in a district with safe, high-quality schools, paying for private schools, or homeschooling. For low-income and minority families, charter schools are often the only education alternatives.
In short: yes, charter schools work. By numerous measures of results, they work. By allowing for innovation in pedagogy, they work. By giving parents the ability to choose a school that best fits their children, they work. Wealthy parents use a variety of metrics to choose schools for their children, and they aren't asked to prove their choices “work” based on test scores. Lower-income parents deserve the same level of trust.