Charter schools have been touted as a way for students to escape underperforming local public schools ever since Pennsylvania passed legislation in 1997 establishing them as a independent public schools. Cyber charter schools followed in 2002.
One of the key selling points used by charter schools has been that their students outperform their public school counterparts. But according to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, historical data indicate that a consistently lower percentage of charter schools make AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) than traditional public schools.
Last fall, the state Department of Education implemented a new way of determining whether charter schools have met student achievement milestones for AYP under the federal No Child Left Behind law. The new method was less stringent than the standards that must be met by traditional public schools, which until last fall also applied to charter schools. Use of the more lenient method made it appear that more charter schools made AYP last year than actually did.
The school boards association expressed concerns that this was an attempt to artificially inflate the number of charter schools regarded as making AYP and mask deficiencies in charter schools. That information would deny families the information necessary to make informed choices and mislead them about the charter schools they are considering or already attend.
The U.S Department of Education required the state's education department to recalculate the academic performance of charter schools for 2011-12. The data showing a marked decline in the number of schools that met targets for AYP and an increase in those charter schools that are in the warning, improvement or corrective action status categories.
The recalculations affected 144 brick and mortar charter schools, and 12 cyber charter schools (see attached PDF from Pennsylvania Department of Education website).
Only 28 percent of all charter schools met AYP, as compared to 49 percent determined under the calculations made last fall. No cyber charter schools met AYP.
The costs to local school districts can be staggering. According to a survey done by the Tribune-Review, Woodland Hills, for instance, pays $13.9 million a year in charter school tuition for 1,157 students—money that takes away from the public school program. Other districts with big charter school bills are Seneca Valley with $1.7 million, North Allegheny with $1.4 million and North Hills with $1.2 million.
Just last week, Wilkinsburg School District filed a petition in court to borrow $3 million because it's running out of money—the same amount of money it's paying out to charter schools this year.
On Jan. 25, the House Republican Caucus unveiled a legislative package aimed at reforming charter and cyber charter school funding. Yet despite facts to the contrary, Rep. Mike Reese (R-Fayette/Westmoreland) said that "Pennsylvania’s charter schools and cyber charter schools have generally worked well and have benefitted many Pennsylvania families, particularly those students in low-performing school districts."
The charter school performance numbers beg the question of whether school districts should be forced to pay for students to attend schools that drain money from public school budgets but show no better results than the home district. While districts can revoke charters, it is a long and costly process that requires approval of a state board.
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