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Pennsylvania's rating on charter schools slips

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By Rachel Weaver
Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2012

An advocacy group dropped Pennsylvania four spots in its ranking of how well states encourage quality, growth and accountability in charter schools.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in its third annual study released today ranked Pennsylvania 16th for 2011, passed by states that made substantial changes to their charter school laws. Todd Ziebarth, the study's lead author, said Pennsylvania didn't take steps backward -- others took steps forward.

"In general, Pennsylvania law provides an environment that's open to new startups, public school conversions and virtual schools," he said.

More than 90,000 students are enrolled in 140 public charter schools, including 11 cyber charter schools, according to the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools. An estimated 30,000 students are on waiting lists.

Legislation pending in the state House would create an independent commission to authorize and oversee all charter and cyber charter schools statewide. Current law allows school boards to authorize or close brick-and-mortar charter schools. Since 1997, districts have closed just two charter schools, both in the Philadelphia area.

"No school district in the state has done the job as far as closing underperforming schools," said Robert Fayfich, coalition executive director. "There are some that should be closed."

In Western Pennsylvania, Propel operates the largest number of charter schools, eight with an enrollment of 2,400 students. PA Cyber Charter School, based in Midland, has about 11,000 students enrolled from across the state.

Fayfich said a commission charged with overseeing all charter schools would eliminate inconsistencies regarding policies and procedures.

Indiana jumped from 25th to sixth in the rankings in part because it established a similar board, the national alliance said.

However, Steve Robinson, Pennsylvania School Boards Association spokesman, said a statewide commission would "take the taxing authority away from the local community." Charter schools receive taxpayer money from the districts that approve their charters, and their school boards are elected by the community.

"If charter schools are approved by a statewide commission, what say does the local community have?" he said.

The proposed legislation also would extend the renewal period for charter schools from five to 10 years. Maine, which was first in the rankings, requires charters to undergo reviews every five years. But those that perform strong on the reviews can go as long as 15 years without a formal renewal.

While the pending bill calls for the creation of an advisory committee to investigate and recommend changes to the current funding model for charter schools, Robinson said it does not do enough. He noted the same formula covers cyber charter schools, which have fewer overhead costs.

"We need a fairer and more equitable funding approach," Robinson said.

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