Talking Turkey about Charters

Pennsylvania’s education secretary Ron Tomalis may not have been feeling very thankful last week. The feds just slapped down his blatant attempt to change the reporting rules for charter schools that would have made their student achievement rates look better. As you may recall, earlier this fall Tomalis had just been caught lying about the supposed impact of teachers on falling student test scores, when an investigative piece by the Lehigh Valley’s Morning Call revealed that he was also trying to cheat the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) system, making it easier for charter schools to meet those student-testing benchmarks than traditional public schools. [See “A Liar and a Cheat”]

Secretary Tomalis made the change without first getting federal approval, allowing him to report that dozens more charter schools had made AYP this year. Using Tomalis’ new math, charter school proponents could claim that 59% of charter schools made AYP in 2012, compared to 50% of traditional public schools. But the federal Department of Education rejected the scheme and ordered Pennsylvania to re-evaluate charter schools using the same process applied to other public schools. That means that only 37% of charter schools will now make AYP this year. [Post-Gazette, 11-24-12] Obviously that is significantly worse than traditional public schools.

Assistant U.S. education secretary Deborah S. Delisle nailed it on the head when she made the order, noting, “Pennsylvania is obligated to make AYP decisions for all schools and hold all schools to the same standards.” [The Morning Call, 11-21-12] But Sec. Tomalis was clearly trying to distort the playing field and inflate the appearance of charter school performance at a crucial political moment, just as charter schools are being promoted as the “solution” to “failing” public schools.

The timing of the announcement also reeks of political motivations. The U.S. Department of Education issued its order on Monday, November 19th, but Sec. Tomalis waited until Wednesday, November 21st – the day before Thanksgiving – to release it, clearly hoping that the news would be buried on one of the busiest travel days of the year.

Perhaps Sec. Tomalis also hoped that the news would not leak out before the public hearings scheduled to begin today on applications for eight new cyber charter schools. Despite their dismal performance, Pennsylvania has 16 cyber charter schools – more than any other state in the country – including four it approved just this past summer. And now it wants to consider eight more? That’s crazy.

Pennsylvania law actually requires the state to review cyber charter schools every year and revoke those charters when they fail to meet student performance standards. [See PA state law: 24 P.S. §Section 17-1741-A (3) and 17-1742-A(2)] Only one cyber charter school made AYP this year and abundant research has demonstrated their dismal track record for students. [See “Dueling Rallies” for summary of the data.] In calling for a state moratorium on approving any new cyber charters, Rhonda Brownstein, Executive Director of the Education Law Center, noted, “Cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania have longstanding problems with poor academic outcomes for students, and the Department does not appear to have the current capacity to handle its legally mandated and critical oversight and accountability functions for these taxpayer-funded schools.” [ELC Release, 11-21-12]

The Education Law Center will be testifying today at the public hearing in Harrisburg. We here in the grassroots ought to lend our voices to this highly reasonable call for a moratorium on new cyber charter schools. When only 37% of all charter schools are making AYP and cyber charters are performing even worse, we must ask why the state would even contemplate opening more schools that fail our kids. Holiday weekend or not, we were paying attention – and now it’s time to talk turkey about what really works in education.


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