When Charters Cause Harm (and Leaders Fail to Lead)

Pittsburgh got some most unwelcome news this week: the state is foisting two charter schools upon us that our school board voted against. This will add millions to the district’s budget deficit just as we are being told we must close more schools in our communities in order to address that deficit. Meanwhile, our legislators are debating a very poorly designed charter “reform” bill that would actually take more control away from local, democratically elected school boards and make it even harder for districts to balance their already bare bones budgets.

Pennsylvania’s charter schools have a terrible track record of student performance. The latest national research found that charter students cover 29 fewer days of reading material on average, and 50 fewer days of math than traditional public schools. That puts Pennsylvania in the bottom three states in the country. [Stanford CREDO, National Charter School Study 2013] The state’s cyber charter schools are particularly problematic, with not a single one making Adequate Yearly Progress last year. [PA Dept. of Education, Charter School PSSA Performance]

The Pittsburgh school board voted to revoke the charter of Career Connections Charter High School in Lawrenceville when it “found few … students were participating in legitimate internships, a core part of the school’s mission. The district also cited a finding that student performance on standardized tests had worsened.” [Post-Gazette, 9-24-13] Last month the state’s charter school appeal board upheld the Pittsburgh decision, but then this week decided that Career Connections could stay open while it takes its case to the courts (which will cost us taxpayers even more money).

The state appeal board also decided to overturn the Pittsburgh school board’s rejection of an application from Propel Charter Schools to open a new school in Hazelwood. [Post-Gazette, 10-16-13] The Propel chain of schools actually has a better track record than most charters in the state, though its Northside location did not make AYP last year. Propel is a non-profit, is locally run, and has a local board of directors – all critically important. But what is its secret for success?

Propel claims that its secret lies in six principles, including “agile instruction” (letting teachers actually teach in their classrooms, giving them data and support, with no hint of bell-to-bell-scripted curricula) and a “fully valued arts program” (with kids getting art every single day). [Propel Schools Principles] The school boasts of its small class sizes, support for students and families outside of school, highly qualified teachers (all state certified and most with graduate degrees), and extensive professional development for its staff. These are exactly the things we want for all of our children and in all of our schools.

So what’s the problem here? In Pittsburgh we’re being told that we can’t have these things because we’re going broke. We have a looming $46 million budget gap. Guess how much we spend sending kids to charter schools? $53 million. Yep, that’s right. We are spending more to send 10% of our kids to charter schools than it would cost to plug the budget gap, which is forcing 90% of Pittsburgh public school students to go without art, music, small class sizes, or “agile teaching.”

Now the math isn’t quite that simple (and I’m not suggesting we simply close all our charter schools). But consider this: like many school districts, Pittsburgh’s charter school payments are ballooning, up $5.5 million last year alone from the previous year. With the state’s massive defunding of public schools, Governor Corbett slashed reimbursements to districts for charter school tuition payments, costing Pittsburgh $14.8 million last year. [See “Charter Reform Now”] That amount right there is almost a third of the district’s projected budget gap. A third!

Over the past decade, Pittsburgh has endured four rounds of school closures to deal with population loss and persistent financial crises. The choices the district made left Hazelwood without a single public school – a literal education dessert. And now Propel wants to buy the former Burgwin school building in that neighborhood, which is on the market for $475,000, and then turn it into a charter school for 400 students. [Post-Gazette, 10-16-13] (I must point out that the district’s Envisioning plan considers enrollment under 500 at an elementary school to be “under-utilized” and grounds for closing.) With 400 students enjoying nice small classes, this new Propel school will cost Pittsburgh at least $5.1 million every year. So did closing Burgwin actually wind up saving money in the long term?

We visited the closed Burgwin school on our Rolling Rally bus tour back in May.

We visited the closed Burgwin school on our Rolling Rally bus tour back in May.

Now to add insult to injury, the state has not only forced Pittsburgh to accept these two charter schools – regardless of how they fit or do not fit into the larger strategic plan and budget slashing measures the administration is currently laying out for the rest of the city’s children – but our state legislators are also considering a charter “reform” bill that would make it harder still for districts to be accountable for those schools. Our colleague Susan Spicka, who works in the grassroots education justice movement out in the middle part of the state, explains that Senate Bill 1085, which came out of committee on Wednesday, is “a really bad bill that would overhaul current charter school law … and will likely move in the Senate floor as early as the week of 10/21.”

SB 1085 (and to a large extent its companion bill in the House, HB 618) would authorize an institution of higher learning to be a charter school authorizer instead of local school districts. Spicka explains, “This would strip control from taxpayers and locally-elected school boards and allow charter schools to be authorized by an outside entity, set up shop in our communities, and send us the bill.” School districts would also lose control over approving the operation of any charter schools that want to consolidate into a new, larger entity in their district. And the bill would permit an unfettered expansion of charter schools in Pennsylvania while removing language that used to call for charter schools to be models of innovation for traditional public schools – supposedly their very reason for being. [Education Matters in the Cumberland Valley, 10-17-13]

So where is the administration’s leadership on these state policies that are hurting our district? Why isn’t our school board speaking up? What about our teacher’s union? We haven’t heard a peep. There may be meetings happening behind closed doors, but that is doing little to harness the power of the people. We know that it’s only pressure from a large number of people working together with our legislators that will make better state policies that stop hurting our schools and our children. The silence of our educational leaders does more than simply fail to engage people in the solution: it leaves the public with the impression that the entire budget problem is of the district’s making, and that the entire solution must therefore lie within the district’s control as well. It’s that kind of constricted thinking that leads us to assume the only thing we can do now is to close more schools and hurt more communities.

We need bigger thinking. Out of the box solutions. A full, authentic involvement of the entire Pittsburgh community. We cannot sit back and refuse to engage with state legislators who are making decisions that directly impact the district. So right now, a couple of volunteer moms who write education blogs are asking you to please send an email to your state senator and share your concerns with SB 1085. Check out Susan Spicka’s piece for the exact fixes we would like to see before the bill comes to the Senate floor. If we’re going to get educational justice for all of our children, we are going to have to demand it ourselves.

5 thoughts on “When Charters Cause Harm (and Leaders Fail to Lead)

    • I presume you are referring to the PPS board’s decision in the cases of these two charter schools? That is precisely the board’s job. They are supposed to be accountable for all the schools that fall under their purview — which includes all charter schools chartered by the district. The idea is that local school boards of democratically elected officials representing the concerns of local people will provide the necessary fiscal and academic oversight to ensure students are getting what they need and deserve.

  1. Pingback: A dozen problems with charter schools

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