On the eve of Labor Day, as schools across the state prepare to open for a new year, Pennsylvania still lacks clear strategies to tackle two of public education’s worst problems – inadequate funding of local districts and insufficient regulation of charter schools.
As the governor’s race gets hotter, expect to hear a lot more about education funding, with Republican Gov. Corbett defending his past school spending and Democratic challenger Tom Wolf pushing for a natural-gas tax to generate more money for districts.
Charter schools shouldn’t get lost in the debate. More and more students – not just in Pennsylvania, but across the nation – are opting out of traditional public schools for charters. But the evidence shows that too often, they are not being educated more effectively.
That conclusion can be found in a recent report by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, a bipartisan agency created by the legislature in 1987 to promote the “revitalization of rural Pennsylvania.” In that capacity, the center looked at rural and urban charter schools and found that most are doing a poor job.
The study found that more than 80 percent of the students who leave a traditional public school to attend a charter school enroll in one whose performance on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests is inferior to the school they left. That doesn’t mean there aren’t good charters in Pennsylvania; it means the good ones aren’t being replicated enough.
Either parents aren’t aware of that, or they don’t care, perhaps because they prefer the charter environment. Charter school enrollment has mushroomed, growing 54 percent statewide between the 2006-07 and 2010-11 academic years, to 90,000 students. Cyber-charters grew 75 percent during that period, to 28,000 students. Only about 5 percent of Pennsylvania public school students attend a charter, but that’s the seventh-largest charter population in the nation.
The state stopped providing a subsidy for charter school students about four years ago, leaving funding almost entirely to local districts. But the districts typically see no decrease in maintenance, personnel, and other costs, because the reduction in students per traditional school hasn’t been significant enough.
The center’s study found that the burden of funding charters has hit urban districts harder because they enroll 56 percent of all charter students, with 29 percent in suburban districts and 15 percent in rural settings. Districts’ charter costs grew from about $527 million to more than $1.1 billion annually in five years.
Pennsylvania’s charter school law hasn’t been changed in 17 years. Legislation introduced last year failed because it had significant flaws. But with students continuing to turn to charters despite their shortcomings, a higher priority must be placed on ensuring that they provide the education they promise at a cost the public can afford.
Full Story: Charters Still An Issue, Philadelphia Inquirer, 08/31/14