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By Dr. James Hanak

Times Guest Columnist

Numerous school districts, following the lead of one, have passed the identical resolution referenced in this Sep 20 op-ed calling for “charter school reform.” As one might expect, these “reforms” are all punitive to public charter schools. They call for more “accountability” and less money for the charter schools.

May I offer some novel ideas for charter school reform in Pennsylvania?

My first suggestion is that we treat all public school students the same. Currently, public charter school students receive approximately 75% of the money spent on this same child in their traditional public school system. The thinking behind this funding formula is that home school districts have certain fixed costs that do not change when the student chooses a charter school. Of course, the charter school has these same costs and sometimes even more because many buildings in the home school district are already paid for.

Another reform could be that if the authorizing agent does not renew the charter in a timely manner, the charter is automatically renewed. Several state public cyber charter schools have been waiting for years to receive their five-year renewals from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. One has been waiting eight years! Without a charter renewal, these schools find it hard to borrow money for the purchase of buildings and cause parents to wonder what is wrong with the charter school. This change would dramatically increase “accountability.”

A third reform could require school districts to be penalized if they do not pay charter schools as set forth in the charter school law. Nearly one half of all school districts do not pay the Charter Schools as required by state law. The state Department of Education must correct these illegal actions. A small fine or small interest percentage to the school districts would greatly unburden the time and money spent by the state Department of Education to redirect state school funding for the charter school students. School districts have 90% of their budget in the bank by the time school starts in the fall. Charter schools receive their money for students one, two and sometimes 12 months after the charter school provides the education. Motivating school districts to follow the law and pay charter schools directly could free up as much as 10% of the charter school’s budget.

A fourth reform could require school districts to “own” for a period of time the state Standardized Test Scores for students that choose to attend a charter school. Stats show that it takes about three years for students - who come to charter schools on average 1 ½ years behind in their studies - to catch up.  After that time most charter school students perform even better than their traditional school counterparts.

A fifth reform would be to allow charter schools to bill for the actual costs of special education students.  Some charter schools spend more on their special education students than are allotted to them through the Charter School Law. This change would also keep school districts from encouraging their most expensive special ed students to attend a charter school – students that enroll but never actually attend a charter school but are immediately transferred to an alternative school. These students can cost as much as $200,000 for each student each year.

A final reform would be to create more accountability. Currently, charter schools must file over 300 reports to various state and federal agencies. Traditional public schools file reports as well but rarely do these district reports result in any corrective action. Charter schools uniquely, however, must apply for a “charter” that authorizes them to open and enroll students. This charter must be “renewed” in three years and every five years thereafter. Traditional public schools have no such accountability. It would be nice to have a structure that, every five years, required traditional public schools to document their success or lack thereof that could be posted for the public to view. These charter renewals can cost the charter school thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars. These “charter renewals” are not necessary as the authorizing agency (school districts or the state Department of Education) can provide the necessary oversight through the 300+ reports submitted yearly. Another time saving idea would be to stretch the renewal period to 10 years for charter schools that are successful. 

Of course, these suggestions will never be considered. Why? Charter school students make up only about 9% of all public school students in Pennsylvania. Remove the large cities from the equation and the percentage is more like 2.5% of all K-12 students. Not only does the traditional school system have numerous well paid lobbyists working for them every day in Harrisburg, the teacher’s unions and other like organizations have millions of dollars to fund the re-election campaigns of their supporters. Charter schools cannot and should not have to compete with that.

Nonetheless, it doesn’t hurt to dream…

Dr. James Hanak is CEO, Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School in West Chester and executive director of the Public Cyber Charter School Association.

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