A + Schools Discussion Paper Regarding Charter Schools

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1 A + Schools Discussion Paper Regarding Charter Schools Background Pennsylvania s Charter School Law In 1991 Minnesota passed the nation s first charter school law and California followed in By 1997, more than 25 states had enacted laws allowing for the creation of charter schools, and by 2006 charter school laws have been enacted in 41 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. In Pennsylvania, Act 22 of 1997 (Senate Bill 123) made various amendments to the Pennsylvania School Code, including the addition of new language that is cited as the Charter School Law. With this enactment, Pennsylvania joined a majority of states that already had provided for the establishment of charter schools. Among the states then and now, the charter school laws vary in many ways including purpose, the process for authorization, accountability, and funding. When Pennsylvania enacted its Charter School Law, It was argued by proponents and critics of the legislation that the several years of debate in Pennsylvania preceding the enactment of the new law allowed Pennsylvania lawmakers to learn from the experiences of those states that had acted more quickly to allow for charter schools. National observers then and more recently labeled Pennsylvania s law middle-of-the-road, making it neither too easy nor too hard to establish and operate charter schools in the state. Pennsylvania s Charter School Law says it is the intent of the General Assembly to provide pupils and community members to establish and maintain schools that operate independently from the existing school district structure, as a method to accomplish all of the following: 1) Improve pupil learning. 2) Increase learning opportunities for all pupils. 3) Encourage the use of different and innovative teaching methods. 4) Create new professional opportunities for teachers, including the opportunity to be responsible for the learning program at the school site. 5) Provide parents and pupils with expanded choices in the types of educational opportunities that are available within the public school system. 6) Hold the schools established under this act accountable for meeting measurable academic standards and provide the school with a method to establish accountability systems. Pennsylvania s Charter School Law says that charter schools are public schools. The law provides for the establishment of new schools or the conversion of an existing public school to charter school. The 1997 law provided that charter schools could be established only by a not-for-profit organization with the approval of the school board of the district in which the school would be located. Additional districts could also grant authority for the establishment of the charter school, an approval step that has proven to be unnecessary from the 1

2 standpoint of the charter school. If a school district denied approval for a charter school application, the law gives to the applicant the right to appeal to a State Appeals Board. The state law prescribes the criteria for a school district to use in the consideration of a charter school application. These same criteria must be applied by the State Appeals Board for any applications that reach that level. Unlike many states, Pennsylvania s Charter School Law did not cap or otherwise limit the number of charter schools that could be established in the state. Perhaps the state s disinterest in limiting the number of charter schools was due to the fact that the new law did not provide for the state to provide any of the funding to support the operating budgets of charter schools. Since its inception, Pennsylvania s Charter School Law has provided that charter schools are entitled to receive payment from the school district of residence of each of its students. The amount of payment from the district would vary district to district, but for each student a district s payment would equal slightly less than what the district spends to educate each of its regular students. The responsibility to pay for each charter school student living in a district is the duty of the district regardless of the student s previous enrollment or previous residence status in the district. The internet was still relatively new in 1997, and the new state law (and its authors) did not envision the concept of cyber charter schools. These schools rely entirely or mostly on the internet for contact between a school and its students. Therefore the original charter school law, including the application process and criteria, was applied to applicants for cyber charter schools until In 2002, the law was changed to provide that any future consideration and authorization of new or renewal cyber charter school applications would be the responsibility of the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Act 46 of 1998, Act 91 of 2000, Act 123 of 2000, Act 35 of 2001, Act 83 of 2001, Act 88 of 2002, Act 187 of 2002, Act 70 of 2004, Act 46 of 2005, and Act 114 of 2006 each included language that either modified the Charter School Law or had other implications for charter schools. In all cases except for Act 88 of 2002, the provisions of the new Act had minor impact on charter schools, the language either clarifying previous provisions, including charters in provisions being applied to other entities such as districts and intermediate units, or dealing with special circumstances such as the state takeover of the Philadelphia School District. Act 88 of 2002 included two significant changes in the law. The first change, as noted above, affected the process for considering future new or renewal applications for cyber charter schools. Rather than such applications being the responsibility of a single school district, applications for cyber charters were made the responsibility of the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The second change in the law provided for the state to begin to reimburse school districts in up to 30% of the payments made to charter schools. This provision has been repeated annually in subsequent School Code language and state budgets and actual reimbursement by the state has been approximately 27% of costs incurred by districts.. As the state s system of accountability and student assessment has evolved, state lawmakers have required charter schools and their students to participate in the state s student assessment system as other public schools. However, it is argued by some that 2

3 the state law is unclear about the consequences of persistent poor student performance when it may occur in a charter school. Currently, there continues to be debate but no consensus about additional changes in the state laws pertaining to charter schools. In particular, there has been some legislative attention but no final action to suggestions intended to reduce the obligation for school district payments to cyber charter schools. The Pennsylvania Department of Education lists 116 charter schools operating for , including 11 cyber charter schools. Each year the number has grown. The schools vary from serving only a single grade to those serving a full range of K-12. The listed missions and curricula of the schools vary greatly. More than 50,000 of Pennsylvania s 1.8 million public school students are enrolled in charter schools. Each year the number of students enrolled in charter schools increases. Almost one-half of the charter schools are in the Philadelphia School District and about 10% are in Pittsburgh. The remainder are scattered around the state with most in urban areas. There is no evidence that the Pennsylvania Department of Education has implemented any system to monitor the lessons learned from charter schools within the state in order to record effective practices and share such information with other public schools. Given the financial obligations to charter schools imposed on school districts by state law, the relationship of districts and charter schools often appears adversarial and there are only infrequent examples of a district collaborating strategically with one or more charter schools to support the stated purposes of the law. Assumptions The mission of A + Schools is to advocate for and support substantial improvements in student achievement in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. Underlying the mission is a belief that, given the number of students in the system (30,000), substantial improvement in student achievement will have to come from changes in the public school system, and not from creating alternative schools outside of the main system. Understanding then that A+ Schools does not view charter schools as a replacement for the public school system, we do nevertheless say that they deserve support to the extent that it can be shown that they contribute to improving education among those children they touch. Charter schools also deserve support if it can be shown that their existence positively influences the mainstream schools in the district. Problems With these assumptions in mind, we believe that as currently constituted, there are at least four problems concerning the District and its charter schools.. As we list these problems, we should note that we are not here describing specific weaknesses of existing charter schools in Pittsburgh. Those schools have a brief history, and assessing their performance is not the objective of this paper. We do believe that lessons can be learned from the way these schools were authorized and the way they operate in relationship to the main public school system. It is the authorization process and the 3

4 operating relationship with the district, and the larger issue of how the state law governing charter schools creates the environment for these problems, that we address here. 1. First, charter schools deplete precious resources from an extremely resourcestrapped public school system. The subsidy the district pays to charter schools for the students that attend them creates a net loss per pupil that is not compensated by the pupil s departure from the district. When, for example, one or two students leave a classroom, there is not, in fact, a $7,000 or $14,000 savings to the system in operating that classroom. The teacher stays and must be paid; the heating and lighting are not diminished because there are one or two fewer students in the room, etc. Any actual savings to the District for the consumption of some classroom supplies (pencils, paper, test brochures, books, etc.) are limited at best. The subsidy problem is aggravated because under Pennsylvania law the District also pays for students who enroll in charter schools who were not enrolled in a public school in the first place. That constitutes a direct net loss for the District, in that it was not paying for that student in the first place. For every such additional student, the district is forced to expand its costs without ever seeing or educating the student. This occurs most frequently in the case of Pittsburgh residents enrolled in cyber charter schools that can be located practically anywhere across the Commonwealth. Only since has the state reimbursed school districts for up to 30% annually of the payments made by the District to charter schools within the district and elsewhere. Actual payments for Pittsburgh and all districts equal about 27% of district payments made to charter schools. For the most recent school year, the state reimbursed the Pittsburgh School District for $ 4,707, of the $ 23,330, in payments made by the District to charter schools or approximately 20% The second problem with charter schools is that to the extent that higher achieving students leave the district to enroll in the charters, the district and the students who remain lose the benefit of the presence of those students in classrooms. This is not to say that all the students who enroll in charter schools are higher achieving than the classmates they leave in the district. Some are. Some aren t. As importantly, the students who leave tend to have parents who by the very act of selecting themselves out of the district are taking a hand in their children s education. The presence of such active parents is one of the things that help a school succeed. Conversely, their absence reduces the effectiveness of a school. 3. Charter schools are supposed to create a healthy competition with mainstream schools. That competition is supposed to work in two ways. First, it is supposed to force the mainstream schools to improve or face the continuing loss of students and resources. Second, charters schools are supposed to act as incubators of innovation that the mainstream schools can emulate. The benefits of competition are thwarted, however, because the relationship between the district schools and the charter schools is, rather than competitive in a positive 1 Pittsburgh Public Schools Finance Department 4

5 sense, simply adversarial in a most negative way. The relationship is more akin to that of alienation than competition, in the sense that aliens seek to avoid each other, and are (deliberately) unaware of each other, and resent each other when they do come into contact. The attention the district pays to charter schools tends to be limited to the application phase, when the Board of Education must decide on whether to grant a charter, and the budget phase, when the Board sees the impact of the charter schools on the district s fiscal situation. These two phases tend to aggravate the alienation. Neither the district nor the charter schools benefit from such a process. 4. The Pittsburgh District does not treat conceptually or in fact charter schools in the City as assets that can support and enhance the public school system. Rather, charter schools are seen by many primarily as competition for the loyalty of students and their parents and a drain on limited District resources. This largely negative attitude can be attributed to the issues cited above as problems #1 thru #3. Solutions for Discussion Together we should seek to constitute and treat charter schools in a manner that eliminates or reduces the problems described above, and clearly provides an opportunity for the District and its charter schools to work more closely together to advance the interests of all students in the District. Here are possible solutions to or improvements in the problems described above. Proposal # 1: The Governor and State Legislature need to enact and properly fund a rationale statewide school funding system that recognizes and supports the real costs for educating all students to accomplish the state s student academic standards. This rational system must also provide funding based on actual students enrolled in all of the public schools and based on the relative wealth of each district. This will provide the Pittsburgh District more sufficient state support for all students and recognize any increase in the number of students in the District for which the District is financially responsible, including those in charter schools. The District, charter schools and the entire Pittsburgh community should rally around this demand for appropriate state support for all public schools. Proposal #2: There should be common ground for charter schools and the District to work cooperatively to build parent engagement and parent leadership to benefit all of the students of the District. Charter schools need to be treated, and should want to be treated, as part of the overall public school system in the Pittsburgh community. Parents who choose charter schools for their children should see and appreciate the opportunities presented for involvement for their school, but also the District --- for their child, but also for all of the children of the community. The overall system will benefit through more such parent involvement. There also should be collaborative efforts between the District and charter schools to create opportunities for students to take advantage of curricular and extracurricular opportunities in schools other than where they are primarily enrolled. State law has for decades provided for dual enrollment for students who at least partially attend non-public 5

6 schools, so the concept of dual enrollment should not been foreign as a tool for the District and charter schools to best serve the needs of students. Proposal #3: It is natural that there will be competition in the District among its various public schools, including charter schools. But the current competition mechanism can and must be improved. It is imperative that the competition not be modeled on economics. Education cannot be a zero sum game, wherein the winners are balanced by losers. The competition model must include: a) An open process to identify the elements of a charter school that are different from district schools and that are identified in advance as the keys to the individuality and success of the charter school. b) An open process for monitoring the implementation of the elements by the district so that it can learn from the implementation both what works and what does not work; c) A transfer protocol including amendments to collective bargaining agreements and other pertinent contracts, policies and administrative manuals that permits the district schools to incorporate successful elements from the charter schools. The transfer protocol should include provisions that permit staffs from charter schools to be involved in the transfer of successful elements. Proposal # 4: The District must strategically view and treat charter schools in Pittsburgh as assets that support and enhance the educational programs of the District. In turn charter schools must welcome this relationship and consider their own responsibility to the overall well-being of the District and all of its students. This relationship should lead to enhanced opportunities for student curricular and extracurricular experiences, professional development for faculty and staff, improved community and external perceptions of the District and its community, and more effective use of available resources to benefit students and taxpayers. 6

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