Policy Position Charter and Cyber Charter School Law March 2013

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1 Policy Position Charter and Cyber Charter School Law March 2013 Background The passage of Pennsylvania s charter school law in the late 1990s gave children and families more choices within public education and provided an opportunity to facilitate reforms in the traditional K-12 education system. More than a decade after implementation and as conversations continue on what reforms are necessary, policymakers should make changes to improve educational opportunities for all children, increase academic achievement and provide better accountability for the public dollars that are being invested in charter and cyber charter schools. Recommendations 1. Establish a fair state policy for charter and cyber charter school enrollment Children and families in some communities face unnecessary barriers in charter school enrollment and admission practices. Reports of cherry picking in some charter school enrollment practices and limits on admission based on intellectual ability don t provide all children access to charter and cyber charter schools. Further, current law allows charter and cyber charter schools to limit lottery applications to qualified applicants. A review of charter and cyber charter school enrollment applications and policies shows some require the submission of report cards, essays, student and parent interviews, teacher/community member recommendations and more before kids are even allowed to enter the lottery. Comprehensive charter school reform should prohibit such practices and remove barriers for families to enroll their children in charter and cyber charter schools. Solutions should include: a standard enrollment form; a prohibition on enrollment practices that require the submission of information beyond standard identification requirements and residency confirmation; and the allowance of academic prerequisites only for charter and cyber charter schools focused on immersion curriculum in secondary education. Only charter and cyber charter schools that serve secondary students (grades 9-12) and have an immersion curriculum, such as the performing arts or math and science technology, should be able to screen applicants for their ability to meet performance standards. As public schools, the commonwealth should require charter and cyber charter schools to enroll children without regard to academic ability. 2. Use a performance matrix in annual oversight by an authorizer and renewal/revocation decisions Pennsylvania created charter and cyber charter schools as a way to foster student achievement, and we need to ensure children have successful options in these schools. PPC supports the recommendation made by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (originally put forth by the Charter School Quality Consortium) that calls for charter agreements between authorizers and charter/cyber charter schools to include a performance matrix. PPC recommends that Pennsylvania s matrix include: student proficiency, student academic growth, achievement gaps

2 in both proficiency and growth between major student subgroups; attendance; attrition during the academic year; recurrent enrollment from academic year to academic year; postsecondary readiness; financial performance and sustainability; and board performance and stewardship (including compliance with all applicable laws, regulations and terms of the charter contract). PPC believes all of these elements are essential and should be included in a performance matrix, and legislation should include these as required elements. Pennsylvania needs a common tool to evaluate charter and cyber charter school performance across the state so questions about performance can be addressed in a responsible manner. As such, the use of a performance matrix also should be required in annual oversight and renewal/revocation decisions by authorizers. It also can help justify to taxpayers the continued investments in charter and cyber charter schools and/or provide unbiased justification for closure. Places that close failing charter schools on a regular basis are those that have charter schools which exceed the academic performance of their traditional public school counterparts (Colorado, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and New York City). 3. Reward high-performing charter and cyber charter schools The commonwealth needs to prioritize the replication and expansion of high-quality charter and cyber charter schools that have proven track records of increasing and sustaining student achievement. Students and families should have high-quality charter school options. To accomplish this, charter and cyber charter schools that not only meet, but exceed, academic performance expectations and comply with other operating standards as noted in the matrix should be rewarded by streamlining replication, reporting, renewal and governance requirements. Pennsylvania also should allow a successful charter and cyber charter school to expand the reach of its program by absorbing poor performing charter schools or starting a new charter school through an abbreviated approval process. A high-performing charter or cyber charter school seeking expansion to multiple sites should demonstrate sustained academic achievement, meet fiscal accountability standards and audit requirements and be in full compliance with the criteria of the performance matrix. 4. Set minimum academic performance standards Pennsylvania needs to establish a floor for minimum academic performance of charter and cyber charter schools and revoke or decline to renew charters for those that fail to meet these standards. Revocation or non-renewal are the ultimate accountability sanctions. Revocation and closure decisions are often highly contentious. Clear, objective and rigorous standards for revocation, which should be connected to the academic floor and the performance matrix, combined with a transparent public process will help parents and community leaders see the evidence of a school s extreme underperformance and understand the necessity for urgent action to protect students. PPC suggests that authorizers be able to close failing charter and cyber charter schools in Corrective Action II status for two consecutive years regardless of where the school stands in its renewal timeline. 2

3 5. Establish renewal periods connected to performance Five- and 10-year renewal periods should be awarded based on performance and not occur automatically. Renewal periods should reflect how well charter and cyber charter schools are meeting the goals set forth in the performance matrix. Ten years is too long to allow an underperforming or failing charter or cyber charter school to continue to educate students. PPC strongly believes that when charter and cyber charter schools are undergoing the school improvement and corrective action processes, they should not be automatically renewed. Charter and cyber charter schools that meet or exceed academic performance expectations and comply with other operating standards as noted in the performance matrix should be eligible for the maximum renewal period. A longer renewal period could be considered as a reward for high-performing charter and cyber charter schools. Underperforming charter and cyber charter schools should receive only three-year renewals to start. If an underperforming charter or cyber charter school is able to turn around the academic achievement of students and demonstrate improvement after three years, authorizers should revisit renewal periods and consider granting a longer renewal period based on performance. 6. Ensure high-quality authorizing through an independent statewide authorizer Addressing how Pennsylvania authorizes charter and cyber charter schools must be focused on increasing the number of high-quality school options for children not simply increasing the number of charter and cyber charter schools statewide or maintaining local control. Children and families deserve effective charter and cyber charter school options. A responsible authorizer of a charter or cyber charter school must have the time, knowledge and capacity to hold the school accountable for academic and fiscal performance. PPC believes this can be best accomplished through an independent statewide authorizer that has principles for its operation and receives financial support through fees from charter and cyber charter schools. PPC encourages policymakers to examine the principles and standards for charter authorizing from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and establish baseline principles in statute that require a statewide authorizer to ensure quality oversight that maintains high educational and operational standards, preserves school-level autonomy and safeguards student and public interests. Creating an independent authorizer would help relieve school boards and district personnel of charter authorization and oversight. It also would allow districts to focus on the students that remain in their non-charter schools, improve accountability to taxpayers for their investment and help facilitate opportunities to expand high-quality charter schools. A statewide authorizer also could identify and disseminate best practices to all public schools and promote efficiencies. The authorizer should, at a minimum, create standardized forms for use, including: a. Common application forms for the creation and renewal of single charter schools and multiple charter school organizations; b. An enrollment notification template to use with school districts; c. A standard enrollment form (if the Pennsylvania Department of Education s form needs to be revised) for students to apply to charter and cyber charter schools especially students who apply to multiple schools; and d. An annual report template. 3

4 7. Create enhanced fiscal accountability requirements Fiscal accountability requirements that apply to traditional public schools also should apply to charter and cyber charter schools. All financial records of any charter or cyber charter school, even if the school is operated by a charter management organization, should be considered public documents. Charter and cyber charter schools should be required to adhere to the same limits on fund balances as their school district counterparts and be subject to independent audits. 8. Ensure compliance with the Pennsylvania Ethics Act The requirements of the Pennsylvania Ethics Act should apply to all charter and cyber charter school boards of trustees and employees, including the legal obligation for annual filings. Disclosure of existing or potential conflicts of interest between a charter or cyber charter school board of trustees and an education management organization or affiliated business entities (including a charter school foundation) should be reported during the application process and throughout the charter s effective period. Finally, the commonwealth should protect against conflicts of interest between charter and cyber charter school administrators and education management organizations. If a charter administrator seeks to receive compensation from an education management organization, the independent statewide authorizer should be informed prior to an administrator serving in a dual role, and it should have the authority to approve or disapprove of the measure. 9. Use high-quality educator evaluation systems Children in charter and cyber charter schools deserve to have the same quality education that students attending traditional schools receive. This includes having an effective teacher in every classroom every day. Improvements to educator evaluations should focus on raising the achievement of all students, not just those in traditional public schools. Further, teachers in charter and cyber charter schools deserve to benefit from a high-quality evaluation system that will provide them with meaningful, constructive feedback on their skills so they can focus their professional development on areas of need to improve their effectiveness and increase student achievement. PPC recommends that charter and cyber charter schools be required to demonstrate in their application process that they comply with the core elements of the commonwealth s new educator evaluation system. Other states that have implemented improved educator evaluation systems have used various statutory strategies to confirm that charter and cyber charter schools evaluation systems comply with minimum state goals. 10. Establish fair charter and cyber charter school funding formulas that reflect student needs There is little doubt that Pennsylvania needs to make strategic improvements to its charter and cyber charter school funding systems. We should not lose sight of the fact that adequate state funding and formula improvements should be a priority for the financing of all public schools. The funding of district-operated public schools ultimately impacts the level of resources available to charter and cyber charter schools. The use of current and reliable data reflecting students needs and the demands of our rigorous academic standards should be the driving principle behind funding of all Pennsylvania s public schools. Therefore, Pennsylvania should: 4

5 a. Separate funding for charter and cyber charter schools and implement payment solutions specific to each independent entity. Brick-and-mortar charter and cyber charter schools use different strategies to provide educational services, resulting in different cost structures. These differences should be fundamental in the funding solutions for each. b. Include a per-student funding amount that is evidence-based. This funding level should be based on what it costs to educate a child to our academic standards, nothing more or nothing less. c. Respect taxpayers ability to support an expanded system of public education by ensuring that payments to charter and cyber charter schools are not unnecessarily duplicative and only support actual costs of that entity. d. Ensure that charter and cyber charter schools have the flexibility to provide academic offerings to students, consistent with the age-of-beginner in the authorizing school district, that the charter or cyber charter school can finance within the payment structure. e. Provide special education funding that is consistent with students needs and reflective of the costs to support three different categories of disability mild, moderate and severe. Additionally, PDE or an independent statewide authorizer should monitor for fluctuations in special education populations to protect against over-identification. f. Make direct payment to charter and cyber charter schools only after PDE verifies a student s residency. School districts currently have appropriate safeguards in place that require enrollment documentation, including proof of residency, before providing payment. 5

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