Jeff Piccola: Governor’s charter school ‘reforms’ unnecessary
Gov. Tom Wolf recently proposed a series of so-called reforms to Pennsylvania’s Charter School Law. He asserts that it is one of the worst in the nation. If you look at the law from the perspective of high cost and failing school districts, he may be right.
Charter schools, which are public schools, educate 7% of all public school students and do so with 15% less taxpayer funding than traditional school districts.
Why do these students, and their parents, want to leave traditional public schools? The school is either failing, unsafe, not meeting the educational needs of the student or all the above. Pennsylvania’s charter schools are serving a higher percentage of minority and low-income student populations, and doing a better job with less financial support.
The solution is and always has been educational choice. Unfortunately, until the late 1990s, the only alternatives to traditional school districts were expensive private or parochial schools, or home schooling. As a member and later chairman of the Pennsylvania Senate Education Committee, I was proud to help Gov. Tom Ridge enact Pennsylvania’s Charter School Law. This unleashed a tremendous wave of entrepreneurial effort that has resulted in over 180 charter schools in Pennsylvania, of which 15 are cybercharter schools.
The demand for choice in education is great. Over 135,000 students attend a charter school in Pennsylvania.
The governor says he wants to limit enrollment in charter schools as well as put a moratorium on new cybercharter schools. While the governor focuses on charter schools, he continues to neglect the educational issues in our major cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, where districts are experiencing a mass exodus of students whose families are opting for charter schools instead.
The governor wants to hold charter schools to the same transparency, conflict of interest and discrimination standards that apply to traditional public schools. I have been in and around charter schools for over 20 years. The things the governor alleges rarely occur and, if they do, the charter school is shut down because those areas are already covered in the Charter School Law. Charter schools are market-driven, and if they are not meeting the needs of their families, they go out of business; they are held accountable by parents, school districts and the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
What is this governor willing to do to hold the traditional public schools accountable? They educate 93% of public school students in the state, and have a disastrous record with regard to accountability. Charter schools generally get students who are already performing at a low level — because of the failing schools from which they came.
The governor makes allegations about deficiencies in the law in order to set up a straw man so he can severely limit or eliminate charter schools. His political friends in the teachers unions and the school board associations scorn charter schools because of the competition.
I urge the Legislature to reject the governor’s proposal. There are changes needed in the Charter School Law, but these are not the ones.
Don’t take my word for it. Visit a charter school near you and make your own judgment. Talk to parents who have sent their student to a charter school. Their words speak louder than mine or the governor’s.