THE ISSUE: Gov. Tom Wolf visited J.P. McCaskey High School on Tuesday “to promote his plan for reforming Pennsylvania’s charter school law, which Wolf called ‘the worst in the nation,’ ” LNP | LancasterOnline’s Gillian McGoldrick reported. The governor’s proposal would create performance standards for charter schools in the state. It would also “put a moratorium on creating new cybercharters, create a ceiling for cybercharter enrollment at low-performing schools, set ‘equitable’ tuition rates and require charters to be subject to the state’s Right-to-Know Law and other transparency requirements,” McGoldrick reported in her article, to which staff writer Alex Geli contributed.
Calling for Pennsylvania to reform its charter school laws shouldn’t be taken as any disparagement of the important role that quality charter schools can play in educating students (note the emphasis on “quality”).
It’s simply an acknowledgment that current law has long proven insufficient when it comes to accountability, fairness and ensuring the wise use of tax dollars by charter — and especially cybercharter — schools.
Times change, which is why the laws that provide oversight must change, too.
So we agree with the governor’s stance, conveyed earlier this year and essentially repeated this week in Lancaster, that while there are certainly some charter schools doing outstanding work, “the way the law is set up we can’t guarantee that every charter school is actually giving every student the education we need that student to get.”
That’s in tune with what we wrote in a 2017 editorial: “If choice is going to become a reality for more children, the quality of education and the dollars paying for that education need to be monitored more closely. Pennsylvania’s current charter school law is woefully inadequate and outdated and in need of reform."
And, to emphasize, that was in 2017.
Charter school reform is yet another issue on which the Pennsylvania Legislature has dragged its feet and failed to work effectively for the people of the commonwealth.
Taking so long to address what we believe is a relatively straightforward issue — compared to, say, property tax reform — is precisely why so many feel the 253-member General Assembly is bloated and in need of its own reform. (And maybe fewer field trips to Arizona.)
To be clear, charter school reform isn’t all that’s necessary to address funding issues for Pennsylvania schools. This board — and many letter writers — have asserted repeatedly that applying 100% of the state’s fair funding formula to basic education allocations in the 2021-22 budget is needed to resolve unjust disparities.
But charter school reform is crucial, too. Wolf said Tuesday that his proposal would save $395 million that could be directed back into public education. That’s not chump change.
The savings would be realized by better aligning charter school funding formulas with actual costs — thus keeping school districts from overpaying for students from their districts who attend charter or cybercharter schools.
“The fact we have to pay the charters and the cybercharters more money than it actually costs to educate a child, that is just ridiculous and unfair,” School District of Lancaster Superintendent Damaris Rau said during Wolf’s visit to McCaskey. “I don’t understand how anyone thinks that’s OK.”
Rau is not alone among educators in taking this stance. She and Wolf were joined by four other Lancaster County school superintendents Tuesday.
Solanco School District, for example, also has a vested interest in meaningful charter reform.
Superintendent Brian Bliss “said his district pays more than $1.4 million for 94 of its students to attend charter schools,” McGoldrick reported. “Almost all of this goes to cybercharter schools because there are few brick-and-mortar charter schools accessible from that part of Lancaster County.”
Crunching the numbers further, it costs Solanco $11,689 for each regular education student and $30,687 for each special education student sent to a cybercharter. “If the district were to bring all of those students back into the district’s online academy, it would save $650,000, Bliss said, bringing the rate down for regular education students to $8,000,” McGoldrick reported.
Given these costs and the ever-present stakes in providing a quality education to the next generation of Pennsylvanians, we also agree with Wolf’s proposal to create charter school performance standards.
Those that fail to educate children would be held accountable. This type of oversight should have been built into the concept of school choice in the first place, especially when it comes to Pennsylvania’s underperforming cybercharters.
In February, Wolf noted that “all 14 cyber schools in Pennsylvania are designated for federal school improvement, with the vast majority among the lowest 5 percent of public schools.”
Lack of built-in accountability has contributed to that shameful performance.
“What we see today is a situation where people have figured out a way to make money and they are less concerned about what the outcome is,” state Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster city, said Tuesday, criticizing cybercharter priorities. “It’s not about quality, it’s not about education, it’s not about innovation. It’s about the bottom dollar and how much money somebody could make.”
We hope the Republican-controlled General Assembly will support the governor’s proposal for charter school reform. McGoldrick indicated that “at least 10 Republicans in the Legislature” are currently on board, but more will be needed.
No Republicans from Lancaster County have publicly endorsed Wolf’s charter school plan, which we find discouraging. State Sen. Scott Martin, R-Martic Township, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, is planning to be the lead sponsor on the GOP’s version of charter school reform, McGoldrick reported. But that legislation has not yet been unveiled.
Wolf’s proposal offers a solid foundation, so why reinvent the wheel? Martin could work directly with the Wolf administration or the proposal’s Democratic sponsors to address any Republican concerns and priorities — finding common ground together to make charter school reform a reality.
Whatever the path, though, the General Assembly must act. School choice is important, but the Legislature must pass reforms to ensure that the choices parents have for their children’s education are all quality ones.