Charter schools in tense unions with financially pinched districts

| Sunday, March 16, 2014, 11:09 p.m.

Pennsylvania's process for approving charter schools pits would-be school reformers against traditional school districts eager to protect their money and enrollments — a situation that isn't likely to change soon, advocates on both sides say.

State law directs districts to approve charter schools to which they must give up millions in per-pupil state funding. Educators and legislators agree the process is contentious and offers no incentive for budget-pinched districts to feed their competition.

“The intent of the charter school law really was to provide educational opportunities for students that did not exist in our traditional public schools ... to look for ways to do things better and save money,” said Linda Hippert, executive director of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, which represents 42 districts. “We seem to have lost sight of those goals.”

Jon Cetel, executive director of Philadelphia-based PennCAN, an education advocacy group, likened the approval process to an arranged marriage.

“It gives birth to a hostile relationship right off the bat,” he said.

Charters get state money for students from districts in which they live. For more than a decade since charters were established in 1997, schools received state reimbursements worth about 30 percent of that lost funding. Gov. Tom Corbett cut reimbursements in 2011.

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, who hosted meetings statewide about charter changes this month, attributed much of the angst to those cuts.

Pennsylvania has 176 charter schools with more than 100,000 students, up 8 percent from 2012-13. Nationally, charter schools grew by 7 percent.

Even if charters are a good option for students, most districts hope never to see a charter proposal because of the financial drain, Propel Schools Foundation's executive director Jeremy Resnick said. Propel operates nine charters in Allegheny County.

“We have a lot of districts (in Pennsylvania) with only one charter school under its purview,” he said. “If I were that superintendent, why would I want to sink my limited resources in that one school when I have so many other pressing needs?”

Home school districts bear the responsibility and cost of busing students to charter schools within 10 miles of their home districts.

Brentwood school board member David Schaap told legislators in a recent meeting that his district — whose students almost exclusively walk to school — pays $23,000 a year to bus three students to nearby charters.

Intricate review process

Six years ago, educator Derrick Lopez joined corporate, foundation and community leaders from Pittsburgh on a pilgrimage to Harlem seeking innovative school solutions. From that effort sprung the idea for Homewood Children's Village Collegiate Charter School, a facility he said would be a microcosm of intervention strategies in play at Pittsburgh's Lincoln, Faison and Westinghouse schools.

Lopez, a former assistant superintendent for Pittsburgh Public Schools, said in November that his new school should be a shoo-in for charter approval. In February, the Pittsburgh Public Board of Directors said no. Lopez did not return calls.

District spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said the review process includes principals, budget analysts, architects and experts on curriculum, instruction and other topics. They make a recommendation to Superintendent Linda Lane. She presents the findings to the board.

In the report, board members said the children's village failed to provide an approved governance structure or financial plan, a comprehensive curriculum and proof that it offered choices different or better than those available at PPS — all required by state law.

Pittsburgh schools denied 16 of 18 charter applications since 2009. Officials said $54.9 million this year will go to 10 charters.

Hippert estimated the other seven Allegheny County school districts that have authorized charters lost about $58 million in 2012-13, varying from $14,298 per student in Quaker Valley to $7,719 in South Allegheny.

Sen. Jim Brewster, D-McKeesport, said the capital sacrificed by traditional districts, especially to cyber charters, goes largely unseen.

“The light bill, the heat bill, insurance — all the things that are hidden from the public become a real drain on a school district,” he said.

Charter school officials argue their expenses often go unnoticed. Propel twice tried to purchase the former home of Columbus K-5 for its Northside school, which opened in 2011. Co-principal Sarah Mahon likened the experience to apartment living: “We can put up decorations, maybe paint a few walls, but until we own the building, we can't really make it our own.”

Linda Lindsey, 45, of Chartiers spent years checking waiting lists at city charters before Propel Northside chose her son, Sharod, 12. They loved Westwood K-5, but with classes of 30 or more kids, Sharod was not getting the one-on-one instruction he needed, Lindsey said.

“With a small group setting, if he has a question or isn't paying attention for a second and misses something, he can catch up,” she said. “I knew he could excel, and now he's on the honor roll. He never did that before.”

Legislation proposed

Stalled in the Senate since late January, Senate Bill 1085 would allow up to 100 Pennsylvania colleges and universities to approve charter schools, as in New York, Michigan and 11 other states. The state's 1997 law permits all 500 public districts to authorize a charter — only 44 have done so.

Some educators contend the legislation would allow too many authorizers and add to the friction.

Cetel and others argue that less than 9 percent of districts opt to oversee charters. Major universities are not likely to jump at the chance right away, either, he said.

“If you just have local districts making these decisions, you'll never see progress,” Cetel said.

Of the 124 appeal applications received by the State Charter School Appeal Board since its inception, 48 were approved, either granting a charter or reversing a revocation, including Propel Hazelwood late last year. When it opens in the former home of St. Stephen Catholic School this fall, the K-6 school will be the neighborhood's first since Pittsburgh closed Burgwin — where Propel first hoped to open — in 2006 and Gladstone in 2001.

Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Hill District, said problems will continue if lawmakers don't endorse a more equitable system soon.

“There was a reason why charters and cybers and all these other nontraditional systems exploded,” he said, citing underserved children in neighborhoods where public schools lack resources or close.

Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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