A lot of questions are being asked about charter schools in Pennsylvania. State Representative Justin Simmons recently avoided a debate question about leveling the playing field between charter schools and traditional public schools. Instead of answering the question, Simmons chose instead to accuse his opponent of trying to destroy charters.
One individual who has been willing to discuss this topic is Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner. Recently Wagner released a report that focused on the enormous waste of money that is taking place. Some highlights from the report:
- Pennsylvania spends about $3,000 more per student to educate a child in a brick-and-mortar charter school and about $3,500 more per student to educate a child in a cyber charter school compared to the national average, which if addressed could save $315 million annually.
- Pennsylvania could save $50 million a year by eliminating a loophole which allows a “double dipping” of retirement benefit payments.
East Penn School Board Director Ken Bacher recently released a report focused on the local impact of cyber charter schools. Some of the highlights of this report:
- Many local school districts are able to provide a less costly on-line service compared to cyber charters.
- Limiting cyber charter tuition to that which it costs local districts to provide the same service would save local districts over $7 million per year.
- Acording to the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) in every case Pennsylvania cyber charter school students have performed worse than the public schools from which they draw students.
Some legislators in Harrisburg have stepped up in an attempt to tackle the flawed funding formula and provide taxpayer relief. Republican Mike Fleck released a bill in June while Democrat James Roebuck released a smilar bill. Neither of these bills has shown any signs of movement.
Very recently the PA state Senate has put forth it's own version of charter reform. Senate bill 1115 would give the power of approving new charter schools to the state thus ending local school district control. It would also exempt companies (“vendors”) from doing business with charter schools (“local
education agencies”) from Pennsylvania’s right-to-know
laws. In essence 1115 would give the state the ability to create a multitude of new for profit charter schools with less accountability to the public. It is also important to know that this bill was originally intended to address special education funding.
Another defacto reform has recently come down from PA Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis who changed the Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) rules for charters. Charter schools are now given credit for making AYP by simply achieving a certain score for one particular grade span. Traditional public schools by contrast must hit a particular score overall as well as all subcategories to make AYP. This change was made without the required federal permission. Similarly, charter school teachers were exempted from the new state teacher evaluation laws that apply to all other public school teachers.
One of the main leaders in the fight to expand for profit charter schools is an organization known as Student First. A simple google search on Student First campaign contributions to Representative Simmons may provide some insight as to why he evaded the question about charter schools.
Making public education more of a for profit enterprise has produced some serious money. One example is Nick Trombetta, former CEO of PA Cyber Charter (the state’s largest cyber charter). Trombetta reportedly took $10 million taxpayer dollars out of the school’s fund balance to finance construction of a performing arts center. Mr. Trombetta and his related companies have recently come under investigation by the IRS and FBI.
It should be pointed out that not all charter schools are for profit; Seven Generations in Emmaus is one such example. It's equally important to note that charter schools have been able to provide some unique and valuable services to students. However, I would hope that educational benefit rather than profit is the driving force behind charter laws and reforms. Unfortunately, a review of the facts does not look very promising.