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PA's EdReform Proposals Miss Mark on Charter Schools

June 5, 2012

Dear Pennsylvania Policymakers, Charter School Leaders and Parents:

Since 2008, we have been sought after for our leadership and advice about how to make your charter school law the best for all kids in the Keystone State. When called, we responded — with gusto. We have drafted language, edited language, critiqued language and offered ideas. We have connected staff and legislators with experts from across the country – namely Michigan and New York whose states are models in charter school authorizing and quality. Over the past few years we have testified three times, met with more than a dozen leaders, and worked with the offices of your Governor and State Education Department leadership. We have answered the same question numerous times, sent research, data, emails, and advised in person and by phone. Together, individual contact on this issue registers in the 100s.

We have also answered the call to educate individuals on the ground who very much want more educational options for their kids. Parents and charter leaders have sought our help in improving the charter school law. In fact, a concerned group of prominent charter school leaders from across the state have asked us for help in doing more to convince their lawmakers that a law that restricts authorizing to districts and includes the state’s oversight on appeal is a law that impedes their progress.

Our legislative recommendations, which have influenced over 20 other states’ charter laws and amendments over the past two decades, are sitting in your offices and with your staffs. And yet, the only proposal that seems to be going anywhere is a proposal that would create more bureaucracy, hinder the innovation in public education that the General Assembly sought to ensure 15 years ago, and set Pennsylvania’s reform efforts back.

This is not charter reform, this is charter un-reform.

The current proposal would create a much-needed new authorizer for charter schools, but one that is squarely in the hands of the State Department of Education. Such state-run commissions in other states have discouraged charter applicants and put even more burden on an already over-burdened state entity.

Instead, we have recommended that Pennsylvania’s charter law utilize your state’s higher education institutions. In other states where university authorizers are permitted by law, the research show they not only do a remarkable job as independent – but publicly accountable – entities in fostering quality charter school growth, but remove unnecessary political obstacles that exist whenever traditional education agencies at the state or local levels are exclusively in charge. (For more about university authorizers download our primer or check out these exemplary authorizers at Central Michigan University (CMU), State University of New York (SUNY) or Ball State University.)

The current proposal would also restrict authorizing to the lowest ten percent of school districts. While some say that would include more than half of the state’s students, it’s simply not that easy. Charters are open enrollment public schools. They are intended to draw from all neighborhoods, alongside a parent’s choice. If a charter school is created only in a failing school district, how many parents from outside that district will send their children there? How many low-income or working-class families outside these failing districts will be able to exercise their right to choose? Very few, which is the not-so-subtle intention behind the school district lobby that has influenced this policy that Republican leadership is backing, as they’ve been told, by the lobbyists, that this will be the only proposal that could pass this year. We don’t agree.

Additionally, the current proposal does not even address the massive inequities in charter funding that any good “reform” package should have. Instead, it is filled with excessive mandates on charter school governance, imposes restrictions on charters managing their own finances, over-regulates what is supposed to be an independent commission, limits local control and sets up a funding and fee structure for the commission that we have testified is unsustainable.

The school boards associations and the teachers unions do not want a strong charter law in Pennsylvania. They want a restrictive law that protects the status quo. Such laws influenced by these special interest groups in other states ensure that quality and parental choice remains limited and that the bureaucracies they can best direct stay in control. That is not the intention of reforms that should free parents and teachers from unnecessary and non-academic controls that stifle quality. In a state where barely 40 percent of children are reading proficiently at grade level, you must do better.

We share this with you today because after over 15 years of supporting you and our own members, as well as dogging the media to understand the work better, there are groups in the state who are pushing for the changes that appear in HB 2352, sponsored by Representative Killion and endorsed by the Administration.

Well-intentioned and thoughtful, these groups do not understand fully the history of charter schools and what’s at stake if the legislature uses its limited time and political capital to enact a law that sets the state back.

Making law is not about putting people in charge who are friendly to an idea. Laws must be enacted and built for generations, regardless of who’s in charge.

Policymakers, don’t support a proposal that puts your citizens’ educational offerings more squarely in the hands of non-reform entities.

Charter leaders, learn about the issues so that those who speak for you can best serve you. Make your voice known.

And parents, don’t let your choices be dictated by the narrow-minded interests most clearly heard in Harrisburg.

Yours is a great state. It deserves better.

Best Regards,
Jeanne Allen

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