Charter Reform: Get it Right

The mornings have gotten cooler and darker, football teams are celebrating homecoming and “back to school” season has officially ended as children have settled into the routine of the school year. Over the course of the year, many of these students will have their lives transformed for the better. But for thousands of other children, the year is defined by disappointment.

They are trapped in schools that don’t meet their needs—effectively held hostage by a system that limits choice and opportunity.

Nearly 20 years after charter schools were introduced in Pennsylvania, 130,000 students benefit from the educational choice offered by these independently managed, publicly funded schools.

It’s no secret that charter schools work. Philadelphia charter students receive the equivalent of an additional 43 days of reading and math compared to their counterparts in traditional public schools, according to a Stanford University study. Charter schools excel at educating students who typically lag behind their peers, including low-income students, Black and Hispanic students, and English language learners.

Indeed, multiple randomized controlled trials demonstrate that urban students excel in charters.

Still, many students must literally win a lottery to earn a seat in a school of their choosing, while countless others remain stranded on waiting lists. Quality education should not be a game of roulette—it should be afforded to every child.

Charter supporters want to expand choice to serve even more students. Critics—most vocally teachers’ union leaders and defenders of the public school monopoly—see charters as a threat. They want a moratorium on new charters and funding cuts for existing ones.

As lawmakers take on reforms to the 1997 law, it’s critical they get it right.

In July, a charter school overhaul nearly derailed a state budget compromise. At the eleventh hour lawmakers stripped House Bill 530, several years in the making, from the budget agreement, promising to take another pass this fall.

Why did the reform fall apart? Charter critics whipped up a frenzy of misperceptions, claiming the bill would eliminate enrollment caps, rob public school boards of authorizing power, and cause rampant charter school growth—none of which is true.

Enrollment caps are already illegal. The legislation merely clarifies existing law and honors a recent ruling from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. What’s more, HB 530 does not change that school boards alone may approve brick and mortar charters.

Lost in the frenzy were many of HB 530’s benefits, like lengthening charter terms from three years to five and renewal terms from five years to ten. Under the bill, the State Board of Education would create a “performance matrix” to evaluate charter quality. And the Charter School Appeals Board would expand to include more input from those with real-world experience managing a charter school.

The bill also would establish a commission to examine charter funding and propose recommendations.

That’s not to say HB 530 is perfect. One advantage of charters is they have greater autonomy and fewer mandates than traditional schools. Unfortunately, the bill includes a host of new regulations. Although some are reasonable—increased financial transparency and accountability measures, among others—lawmakers should avoid burdening charters with the same red tape drowning traditional public schools.

Most troubling, though, are the bill’s arbitrary, $27-million cuts to cyber charters—before a funding commission even begins its work.

Pennsylvania is among the top ten states in per-pupil education spending, and aid to public schools has steadily increased since Gov. Rendell cut state funds and supplanted them with federal dollars. Why consider cuts for public cyber schools, which account for less than 2 percent of all public school spending in the commonwealth?

Too much is at stake to rush into funding cuts. Pennsylvania must not do wrong by its charter schools and the families they serve.

As lawmakers return to Harrisburg this fall, issues such as opioid abuse and pension reform will vie for their attention. If they tackle charter reform, too, it’s imperative they prioritize families over special interests and expand opportunity for Pennsylvania’s children.