Hard-hit districts push back against charter schools

| Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Western Pennsylvania school districts that are losing students and money to charter schools are fighting back.

The Penn Hills school board this week approved spending $3,500 a month for two years of advertising on TV and the Internet. Thirty-second ads will promote the Penn Hills Senior High School that opened last month.

The neighboring Woodland Hills school board awarded a $13,000 contract on Wednesday to develop infomercials to air on public access television.

Districts traditionally have not advertised schools, but their charter-school counterparts have, attracting a growing number of students.

Woodland Hills will pay $13.9 million — nearly 17 percent of its annual budget — to charter schools this year to educate more than 1,150 children who live in the district, the most students among 49 suburban districts the Tribune-Review surveyed. About 22 percent of eligible students there go to charter schools. Penn Hills is sending 787 students to charter schools at a cost of $8.1 million.

“It's cost us personnel. It's cost us programs,” said Tara Reis, a Woodland Hills board member and parent. “When you see these kinds of numbers, it's staggering. That's why we don't have reading specialists or an after-school tutoring program or pre-K programs anymore.”

Since the Legislature approved charter schools in 1997, 175 have opened statewide. Sixteen are online only. The charters are privately operated but funded by tuition payments from districts.

Supporters say they offer a better education than traditional public schools.

“I feel like a charter school gives us public education with a private-school feel,” said Ivelisse Torres of Penn Hills, whose daughter, Chloe, attends first grade at Imagine Penn Hills Charter School of Entrepreneurship, which opened in 2012.

Districts such as Woodland Hills are fighting reputations for low test scores and violence.

“The parent perspective is that the environment (in the school district) isn't conducive for the child,” said Bob Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools. “There's violence in the school, not a focus on learning.”

Reis said Woodland Hills needs to highlight that the district and high school met minimum test score levels. Its infomercials would include a five-minute piece outlining positive things happening in the district; two one-minute spots sharing student experiences and alumni perspectives; and several 30-second ads themed “Woodland Hills … where diversity works.”

Butch Santicola, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest public teachers' union, said districts “have sat back and been in defensive mode.”

“Charter schools are a game-changer, no doubt,” said Joseph Domaracki, interim associate dean of the College of Educational Technology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. “Public schools have to do more to maintain their populations. It‘s a reality.”

Districts responded slowly. Some started cyber programs.

A group of Westmoreland County districts offers courses through e-Academy, a cyber program the Intermediate Unit began. About 600 students participate, including 30 at Norwin's Center for 21st Century Learners. Some take traditional and cyber classes, said Tracy McNelly, Norwin's assistant superintendent of secondary education.

“What districts are seeing is that it's sort of stopping the bleeding,” said Allie Arendas, distance learning specialist for Westmoreland Intermediate Unit.

This year at Quaker Valley schools in the Sewickley area, more students enrolled in the district's QV e-Learning program than in charter schools.

“I don't know that I have a crystal ball, but competition and choice seem to be the rule of the day,” said Quaker Valley Superintendent Joseph Clapper. “Public school districts, in my opinion, shouldn't shy away from that.”

Districts asked state lawmakers for help. A bill to create a commission to study charter school funding passed the Senate but stalled in the House last year.

Sen. Jim Brewster, D- McKeesport, who publicly supported Propel Schools, acknowledged problems with the charter concept because charters siphon money from public districts.

“Right now, it's a feeding frenzy,” he said.

Melissa Hart, a lawyer who as a state senator was among sponsors of the charter school law, said she's pleased with their development.

“For some kids, the charters have been a real savior in some areas,” Hart said, noting that “no piece of legislation is perfect.”

“I'm happy ... that parents and families have more freedom on where to send kids without having to pay to send them somewhere. I think that's a good thing.”

Daveen Rae Kurutz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8627. Staff writer Matthew DeFusco contributed to this report.

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