Framing the Dialogue

A Charter Barter

To charter or not to charter is the question among many Pennsylvania school districts.  A flaw (in my opinion) in Pennsylvania’s school charter system is that any application for a charter school must be approved by the school district in which it will be located.  This was humorously described by Rep. Tom Killion as “saying McDonald’s gets to say whether Burger King gets to franchise in their area.”  The article about the Pennsylvania charter school system provided some statistics that may bear out this comparison,

“Statewide last year, 19 schools applied for charters, with 10 rejected, according to the state Department of Education. Five applications are pending, and four were approved. Since 2006, Pittsburgh Public Schools granted two charters and rejected six.”

Only around 25 percent of applications were approved.  The article did not identify how many other proposed charter schools never even applied because of the process.  A quote from Nate Benefield of the Commonwealth Foundation,

“There is a conflict of interest with the school district and the charter school because when students leave to go to charters, the money follows the child.”

It is always a good rule-of-thumb to follow the money.  A local school district superintendent offered that school districts inherently are interested in what’s best for the students.  I am a little too jaded to fall for that.  School districts in most local communities collect the most taxes, often levying taxes with little oversight and control by the local tax payer.  Large school bureaucracies also gobble up state and federal tax dollars.  You’d have to be pretty naive to believe that budget issues are not a factor in the charter school decisions. 

I was perhaps most disappointed in the article in that it stressed that “Charter schools operate with less regulation but must meet state standards under the federal No Child Left Behind Act as traditional public schools do. Last year 63 percent of charters in the state met standards, compared with 78 percent of traditional schools.”  I have no doubt that the statistic used was provided by opponents of charter schools.  When you read that I an struck by the fact that “traditional schools” perform at a level 13 percent higher than charter schools.  While the statistic is probably true, however like suckers, there’s a statistic born every minute and this one is misleading.  A comparison of the performance of districts where charter schools are most frequently proposed (Pittsburgh and Philadelphia schools as used in the article) and the charter schools would be a better comparison.  The statistic used benefits low performing districts by driving up performance by adding in those schools that perform well.

That is poor reporting!  I spent a few minutes on the Pennsylvania Department of Education web site and came up with some different statistics based on their data.  The measure of school performance is Adequate Yearly Progress (“AYP”) and each school is listed and whether they met AYP.  Based on the data, the City of Pittsburgh School district has 37 of 60 schools meeting AYP for a performance of less than 62 percent.  The Philadelphia schools fared much worse as only 119 of 266 schools meeting AYP for a performance of less than 45 percent.  Remember that the charter schools were cited as having a 63 percent performance therefore beating both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia schools.  This is a fairer comparison as charter schools tend to dominate where districts are “failing.”

Another trend that I noticed when looking at the Pittsburgh District (since I am most familiar with that area) was that there were a number of schools that probably drive up the statistics.  These “traditional” or “magnet” schools offered more structured education and parents often have to enter a lottery to have their children attend.  In essence they are like charter schools.  Local papers usually feature articles each year about hopeful parents waiting in line to give their children the best education. 

The battle in Pennsylvania has been joined as the new Republican governor and Republican-dominated legislature is pushing for reform with the support of many Democrats.  The desire is to wrest control from local school districts.  On the national scene the Democrat-controlled U.S. Congress last year dealt a blow to D.C. children by only funding charter programs for one year,

“SINCE 2004, a federally funded private-school voucher program has offered a lifeline to a few thousand inner-city kids in Washington, DC. Its initial five-year authorization is up for congressional renewal this week – and the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, chaired by Democrats David Obey and Daniel Inouye, respectively, are trying to ever-so-subtly unravel it.  The bill on the table fails to reauthorize the program for another five-year term, as would be usual. Instead, it only funds the program for another year. Worse, it would grant a new veto power over the program to the DC City Council – so that the program could be killed down the line by either Congress or the City Council.  It’s clear that congressional Democrats want this program dead, but are hoping someone else will pull the plug so that they can’t be blamed for kicking 1,900 kids out of independent and parochial schools they’ve come to depend on.”

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