Lloyd Smucker

Sen. Lloyd Smucker

Pennsylvania is frequently knocked for being slow to adopt policy innovations. Ironic, then, how much criticism is heaped on one of the true innovations of the past generation —charter schools.

On the plus side, charter schools have proved every bit as creative and popular in practice as the originators believed. On the minus side, this form of education was untested, so experience has revealed significant deficiencies in the law, such as not anticipating the rise of cyber charters.

My surpassing interest in education involves having as many strong and accessible options for students and families as possible. Thus, I decided to introduce a charter school reform bill. Not to pick a side. Not to end the debate. To bring reason and common sense to problem-solving.

Logical changes include developing a standard application form. That simple step would make the chartering process more predictable and fairer for applicants and for school officials who must decide to approve, disapprove, or extend charter schools. Remove guesswork, and decision-making becomes less susceptible to accusations of arbitrariness.

The bigger battlegrounds are typical — money and policy. Hardline charter school advocates do not want to surrender a single dollar they currently receive. Hardline public school defenders do not want to give a single dollar to charter schools. The good news is that leaves abundant room in the middle for compromise.

The easiest friction point to address is the so-called pension double dip. That, however, is far from the only funding dispute. A commission will determine actual costs of instruction at charters and recommend a funding formula, as was done previously for basic education and special education.

Wide agreement exists on the need to apply stronger ethics, openness, and accountability requirements to charter schools. The bill brings more oversight, evaluation, and assessment. The state auditor general will review the books. Tying a charter renewal period to academic performance measurements is an appropriate accountability standard.

Some public school advocates want to "fix" problems by heavily regulating charter schools. Sure, make them look just like the regular public schools, and the reasons for their existence and their appeal to parents vanish. But given the problems afflicting many of our public schools, why erase a valuable and popular option and compound already sizable difficulties?

The answer is not to excessively regulate charter schools. Instead, allow public schools to operate under a less stifling regulatory arrangement more conducive to innovation.

Lancaster County has a splendid example of how that happens. Three school districts — Penn Manor, Hempfield and Manheim Township — developed a collaborative open campus approach, sharing resources and enabling students to take courses outside their home district, which received support from teachers and parents. Their fear of getting snagged in the thickets of state regulations was alleviated by designating it an education demonstration project.

Out of frustration or necessity, some school districts have set up their own cyber charters. That is what competition accomplishes — it pushes the players to be more responsive to student needs.

The reform legislation includes an intriguing concept — the option for colleges and universities to authorize charter schools. No surprise, this is a lightning rod drawing thunderbolts from those who want to cap the number of charter schools and limit student enrollment. The common criticism is that higher education institutions have no money at stake.  

That is not entirely true. Ask any college administrator, and they lament the increasing amount of money devoted to remedial work for high school graduates. In urban areas, universities are already reaching in to help with distressed schools. In many areas, colleges and universities are helping students through dual enrollment programs. In each instance, higher education is filling gaps. There's not much difference in offering charter schools for disaffected or disadvantaged students whose needs are not being met.

School officials darkly imagine an explosion of charter schools resulting in financial Armageddon. Extremely unlikely to happen. Colleges and universities face considerable challenges of their own. Chances are a select few will actively pursue operating a charter school. We can always, in negotiations, make it limited initially and test how it works.

The big question: Can balanced reform be achieved given the hyper-antagonistic environment? Education interest groups and partisans know how to stop consensus. Years of failed legislation proves that. Bills tilted toward charter schools or the regular public schools collapse from insufficient support. Holding out in the hopes of something more favorable passing has not worked for either side. Meanwhile, conflict and confrontation are not working for the broad interests of quality education. All the time education advocates spend arguing over charter schools subtracts from the concentration on other pressing education matters.

The choice seems clear — we can agree on a practical, responsible middle ground that fixes serious gaps in charter school law and creates opportunities for both sides, or we can argue endlessly to the detriment of education improvement.