Charter schools are all over the news today. The Post-Gazette has not one but two articles, there is new legislation pending in the state House this week, and a new grassroots movement launched today aimed at reforming the broken state funding formula. Sounds like time to catch up on what is going on with our charter schools.
First, the Post-Gazette’s cover story looks at the competition to get into both charter schools and the city’s magnet schools. Places like the Environmental Charter School have so many applicants their admission rate is lower than Yale’s. [Post-Gazette, 3-11-13] But a number of Pittsburgh Public Schools also have large numbers of applications for relatively few spots, including Dilworth, Linden, and Phillips. This story did not factor in two of the city’s most coveted schools – Pittsburgh CAPA and Pittsburgh Sci-Tech – which would surely have illustrated just how competitive some of our traditional public schools have become.
While I was glad the paper included Pittsburgh’s public schools in this article, I was disappointed to see it trot out the use of waiting list statistics. This is a marketing tool frequently used by charter school advocates, who claim that there are 44,000 Pennsylvania students on waiting lists. [Post-Gazette, 3-11-13] The problem is that traditional public schools don’t keep waiting lists. They are open to everyone. All the time. For instance, those who do not get coveted spots in Pittsburgh’s magnet schools must be accepted into their feeder pattern school. And the public system is not keeping “waiting lists” for any of their schools. If you don’t get a magnet spot this year, you have to reapply next year with everyone else.
In other words, “waiting lists” are inaccurate comparisons of public demand for particular schools. They have also been prone to exaggeration, as occurred in Florida recently. During a legislative hearing, a charter school lobbyist claimed that there are 80,000 kids on the waiting list in that state, but then back-pedaled fast after being confronted with problems of students being double counted, among other issues with the numbers. [The Answer Sheet, 2-10-13]
Regardless, I appreciate the things that some charters, such as the Environmental Charter School, are able to offer their students. Beautifully designed classrooms. Individualized iPad lessons. Time to hike in local parks. A hands-on curriculum. New playgrounds. An outstanding lunch program. Environmental literacy classes. Low student-teacher ratios. Authentic parent engagement. [Post-Gazette, 3-11-13] These are the things we should have in every public school. Our poorest students, and particularly our students of color, deserve all this and so much more.
Charter schools were conceived back in the 1990s to develop new ideas and share them with traditional public schools. And I am glad to see Pittsburgh superintendent Dr. Linda Lane meeting with the city’s charter schools to warm those relationships. [Post-Gazette, 2-26-13] But in this era of massive state budget cuts, any good ideas that get shared are made nearly impossible to implement as our schools are forced to increase class sizes, furlough teachers, cut the arts, and even eliminate tutoring. So we have to ask, is the problem really that our traditional, urban public schools don’t have good ideas?
One thing we must do is reform the state funding formula so that school districts are properly reimbursing charter schools for what it actually costs them to operate. For instance, the state’s Auditor General estimates that cyber-charters are costing us taxpayers $365 million per year – that’s $1 million per day – in over-payments. [See “One Million Per Day”] State Rep. James Roebuck has just introduced legislation that will go a long way towards fixing a number of problems. [See Post-Gazette, 3-11-13 and PA House Memorandum, 2-25-13] Locally, Rep. Dan Frankel has already signed on to co-sponsor the bill. And Republicans, who seem equally focused on addressing the cyber-charter funding problems, in particular, have introduced other bills.
The time has come for much needed reform and it appears that political will has shifted in that direction. Pittsburgh alone has budgeted close to $53 million for charter schools this year, and that’s up $5.5 million from last year. With the state’s massive defunding of public schools, Gov. Corbett slashed reimbursements to districts for charter school tuition payments – that is costing Pittsburgh $14.8 million this year. [Post-Gazette, 11-13-12] A new grassroots effort, spearheaded by our colleague Susan Spicka in the middle part of the state, has launched today to tell our legislators that they need to act now. Please take a moment to check out the “Reform PA Charter Schools” site and sign the petition.
Let’s fix this funding formula and other regulatory issues (such as accountability and oversight) so that we can move on to talking about beautifully designed classrooms, individualized iPad lessons, new playgrounds, and small classes for all our children.