(5 Important Clarifications on the Topic)
Recently there have been many discussions in the news and within PA on the topic of charter school reform. The charter school movement started over 25 years ago as a taxpayer funded tuition and at that time ran independently of the traditional school districts. Later, PA passed the charter school law, ACT 22 of 1997. Then in 2002, Governor Schweiker signed Act 88 into law allowing cyber charter schools to be an additional option for parents to choose the best education for their children. Pugliese Associates was instrumental in the development and passage of the cyber charter school law as it remains today.
Charter schools offer another educational choice for parents and their children and enrollment has risen in recent years with state enrollment reaching approximately 137,000 students – of which approximately 40,000 are enrolled in one of the Commonwealth’s 15 cyber charters. It speaks volumes that so many parents are currently choosing the charter school option for their children. It goes to the core of what so many Pennsylvanians want in terms of parent choice. Clearly, the traditional district school model does not work for every child.
Pugliese Associates is activity engaged in preserving the ability of parents to choose charter and cyber charter instruction so their children can have educational options. We are addressing the daily assault on charters by the traditional school districts who have seen an increase of student transfers. The districts are claiming this is draining their resources; but the reality is they are getting paid per student at approximately 25/30 cents on the dollar for not even teaching the student while the charters are receiving the remainder to educate the child. School districts spend an average of less than 2% on cyber charter schools while the school districts still have billions of tax payer dollars in their reserve accounts.
Over the past decade, charter school reform legislation has consistently been introduced session after session. On behalf of our cyber charter school clients, Pugliese Associates has advocated for fair and reasonable charter reform that is consistent with good operating practices to ensure the cyber charter schools may continue to operate effectively. Current charter school legislation has addressed ethics & transparency for the schools’ operations. The bills reference trustees, charter school facility provisions, uniform processes and procedures for charter school applications & renewals as well as the topic of permitting dual enrollment of charter school students- all without tuition cuts. (Click here for our prior blog – “Where Public Schools Fail, Charter School’s Prevail”)
Pugliese Associates has supported various Career & Technical Education legislation that expands programs for workforce opportunities that also include pre-apprenticeship training and apprenticeship certification for charter schools on behalf of our clients. This coordination also includes the Department of Labor & Industry and PA Development and Workforce Center. We are monitoring the Senate Charter School Funding Advisory Commission legislation, currently in the House Education Committee, which will examine all current laws, regulations and executive policy statements to determine funding for charter and cyber charter schools. However, the challenge of moving charter school reform has heated up significantly. Governor Wolf recently proposed executive actions, one of which would establish a fee for service charge to cover costs that the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) incurs while processing charter school applications. It sounds reasonable at face value, but PDE incurs costs supporting traditional schools as well and does not put a “fee” on those schools. Why should parent choice warrant this “fee” on charter schools?
If our traditional public schools were serving the needs of all students, parents wouldn’t be searching for options. In this day and age, we know so much more than when the traditional school systems were originally established, and one thing we do know for certain is that not all children are the same. Not all children learn the same nor do they have the same capabilities and in difficult areas, especially in under-privileged communities, cyber charters or other charters are the very best option for the children in that community. Sometimes cyber charters are the only safe option.
Let’s examine The Harrisburg School District. The District has restricted entry for new charter schools to serve the community and they have stated that they could better serve their children. This was recently and publicly stated by the former President of the Harrisburg School District. The school district is now again in receivership and under investigation for its mishandling of funds that the district so eagerly claimed they knew best how to use. The end result in The Harrisburg School District and others like it is that you have children who, because of their family’s financial limitations, can’t move out of the district, nor do they have any other options other than to attend a public, brick and mortar, charter school (if there is one) or enroll into a cyber charter school.
IMPORTANT CLARIFICATIONS THAT MUST BE ADDRESSED:
- Charter schools are public schools. They are NOT private schools.
Charter schools are named as such because they operate under a charter from a local school board or from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. If a charter school has a physical brick and mortar location, they must be granted a charter from the local school district in which the proposed charter school will be located. Many school districts refuse to grant a charter to charter school applicants, such as Harrisburg, because they refuse to provide educational options to parents who desperately want choices for their children. Regarding cyber charter schools, the PA Department of Education issues the charter since children throughout the State can enroll.
Private schools have a separate licensing process through the State board of private academic schools so the process is entirely different. Just like traditional public schools, charter schools must comply with all state testing mandates and comply with all local, state and federal financial accounting reporting and auditing requirements. In fact, public charter schools (both cyber and brick and mortar) are held to additional accountability requirements that our traditional public schools are not.
- Charter schools do not “take away” money from public schools.
Currently, educational funding is calculated on a per student basis, meaning that the number of enrolled students in a public school determines the amount of funding a school receives. If a student changes where they are enrolled (if a family moves, or chooses to enroll in a charter school) the funding goes to the location where that student is then being educated. The funding for this is partially from the home school district, partially from the state and in some part from the federal government.
However, traditional school districts reimburse charter schools for only 75-80% of what has been calculated to educate a student and keep the remaining for district use. Public charter schools currently receive $2,653 less per-pupil than traditional public schools. This mix of funding is based on the number of students that are enrolled in the charter school.
There are instances where one might see higher special education rates in cyber charter and charter schools. These reimbursement rates are higher, but they rightfully should be provided to the student whether or not a child is in a traditional or charter school. In many instances, the district school may not have assessed a student with special needs for an Individualized Educational Program (IEP); thus, the student struggles and is not able to achieve the required standards. The parents then start to seek alternative education while still not certain of the root cause of the child’s problem. These parents often times turn to a charter or cyber charter out of desperation. In these closely monitored educational environments, the schools are able to more readily notice and address concerns when a child is slipping. The school and the parents have the ability, under federal law, to request an evaluation by the district, through tests and other methods by a team consisting of the parent, teacher, counselor and physician. Charters are sometimes a best resource for a child with educational disadvantages so this can lead to a somewhat higher percentage of special learners. This does not equate to unintelligent, nor ineducable, rather just children requiring special assistance.
- Charter schools perform/educate students as well as traditional schools.
Parents move their child to a cyber charter or charter by choice when the traditional schools are just not working for their child. Charters’ and especially cyber charters’ student populations have a large “at risk” & economically disadvantaged percentage- this is not by accident. As we have mentioned within this blog, many parents recognize the traditional school option as not serving needs adequately in these under-performing school district areas.It’s important to note the reason test scores may be more challenged in cyber charter and some charter schools. Traditional schools in failing districts may have under-served students’ academic needs causing students to fall below grade level and not able to catch up for many reasons. These students then seek an alternative school. Since it takes time to catch up, these students absorbed by cyber charter and charter schools will likely not score well on state assessments since it will generally take time, maybe years, to catch up, especially if the student comes to their door several years below grade level. For example, many of our colleges and universities have to provide remedial education to their incoming freshmen class since these students who have graduated from our school system are unable to progress and excel in our higher education institutions.
- Charter schools do not just benefit children in areas with under-performing public schools.
In poor performing and challenged areas, parents worry for their child’s education level and even their child’s safety in many instances, so they may turn to alternatives. However, under-privileged or poor performing districts are not the only place where charter schools are sought out, nor is it the only place they are beneficial serving specific and targeted student populations. Charter schools, whether brick and mortar or cyber, allow parents options causing them to be sought out for a variety of reasons. Charter schools offer unique environments to benefit many different children adn many different learning styles. For instance, parents of students with specific learning difficulties may do much better in a non-traditional environment (https://www.pennlive.com/opinion/2019/09/my-child-may-have-died-without-school-choice-opinion.html) or, on the other end of the spectrum, advanced learners need schooling at their own, more fluid pace. Parents may also seek out the charter schools when their children have experienced bullying in a traditional school. Additionally, cyber charter schools have the ability to address the needs of children with physical disabilities. There are also situational examples when children who are pursuing advanced training in athletics or the arts need to advantage the flexibility of cyber charter programs to advance academically and within their unique schedule requirements around training and travel.
- Charter schools welcome accountability.
As mentioned earlier, because of the approvals that go directly through the PA Department of Education who has direct oversight of cyber charter schools as with traditional public schools, charter schools must comply with all state testing mandates, and state and federal educational regulations. They are also subject to the same periodic reviews, financial audits and annual reporting requirements that are required of traditional public schools. Charter schools submit more reports than traditional district schools- over 300 annually, consisting of over 17,000 pages.
Charter schools must submit the annual budget to the Department of Education and must utilize an independent, licensed auditor to review their financials. These documents are posted on the cyber charter school website and must be posted on the Department of Education’s website as well.
Charter schools, both brick and mortar and cyber, welcome accountability. They welcome the responsibility of each and every child they serve. Charter schools do not want more, rather they ask for equality in choice. When charters are serving their student populations, being carefully evaluated and selected by parents, there should not be penalties for their existence; especially when the remedies and repercussions for failing traditional schools are slow and cumbersome.
Charter schools serve a strong purpose and have proved themselves as an undeniable resource for many students and families in Pennsylvania.