When Pennsylvania's charter school law was enacted in 1997, it was difficult not to like the concept -- independently operated public schools, freed from many of the regulations constraining traditional public school systems, would be laboratories for educational innovation, producing new approaches that could benefit students in all schools. But the actual experience over the ensuing years has highlighted significant flaws in that law and its companion cyber charter school law that prevent the promise from becoming reality.
School districts were shut out from sharing in the charter school experiment from day one, prohibited by law from starting charter schools or participating in their governance. A rigorous application process intended to provide quality control at the front end was gutted by an appeals process that routinely overturned school board denials of weak charter applications that were too poorly thought out to be trusted with tax dollars and the precious educational years of children. The law's limited mechanisms for oversight and accountability were further weakened when state appeals decisions in some of the worst cases overturned local decisions revoking or refusing to renew charters of schools that utterly failed to meet basic fiscal and educational obligations under the law.
Over the years, billions of tax dollars have been redirected away from local school systems under a funding scheme fundamentally flawed at the outset, one that calculates payouts without regard to the actual cost of operating charter schools, permits far too many of those diverted dollars to be siphoned away from charter school classrooms by for-profit educational management companies and creates a zero-sum situation putting school districts and charter schools at odds instead of promoting collaborative partnerships.
Pennsylvania's "Wild West" approach to the proliferation of charter schools was worsened by the law's failure to allow consideration of the fiscal impact upon a community and what a community's taxpayers could afford in determining how many charter schools should be created. Two years ago Gov. Tom Corbett and the General Assembly concluded that the growing number of charter schools had made it too expensive for the commonwealth to continue reimbursing school districts for 30 percent of local charter school costs, so they shifted that additional burden onto the shoulders of local taxpayers. How can affordability be a valid consideration at the state level but not at the local level?
What we clearly cannot afford is any further delay in making substantial reforms to the charter school law and cyber charter school law to finally get it right, fixing provisions that have not worked as intended and that generate undesirable fiscal and educational outcomes.
Fortunately, there is encouraging momentum among lawmakers who recognize the need to promote more sensible funding, quality in planning and governance, better fiscal and educational accountability, and more transparency in operations. Various legislative proposals have recently been introduced that would address key shortcomings of existing law. Some would quickly produce dramatic fiscal benefits for school districts and their taxpayers. For instance, eliminating the pension double-dip -- charter schools now receive pension reimbursements from both school districts and the state -- would save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars over the next several years.
These measures should receive immediate attention and should not be delayed while more comprehensive reforms are considered.
Stuart L. Knade is interim executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.