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Despite high marks, Pennsylvania charter schools still under attack

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By Evan Grossman

March 24, 2015

PHILADELPHIA — A national education reform organization charges school choice and education freedom are under siege in the City of Brotherly Love.

Despite a host of new data that affirms academic achievement levels of charter schools and points to public thirst for more of them, charters continue to face an uphill battle, according to the Center for Education Reform.

Pennsylvania received a ‘C’ grade in its Charter School Laws Across the States 2015: Rankings and Scorecard“primarily because charters face relentless hostility from both local districts, and now state leaders,” CER President Kara Kerwin said.

“Rather than include charter schools as part of the solution to improving education in Pennsylvania,” she said, “Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget proposal seeks to marginalize them.”

Wolf proposed a state budget that cuts funding to online cyber charter schools and would allow local districts to seize cash reserves charters accrue. The governor alsodemoted School Reform Commission Chairman Bill Green and replaced him with Marjorie Neff, a commissioner who won the approval of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and other charter opponents earlier this year when she denied all 39 new charter applications before the SRC.

Five of those schools were approved by the agency against Wolf’s wishes and those approvals ultimately led to Green’s ouster.

“The governor seems to have bought into the PFT’s narrative about charter schools — hook, line and sinker,” said David Hardy, the CEO of Boy’s Latin Charter School and also one of those 34 rejected applicants. “You won’t be able to keep a charter school operational the way they’re picking at our finances and coming out with more regulations.”

The result: Parents seeking new and better educational opportunities for their children are having their freedom of choice snuffed out by bureaucratic policies.

“There are a lot of adults that don’t like parents having a say in where their children go,” said Tim Eller, director of the Keystone Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “That’s one of the basic fundamental differences between charter schools and traditional district schools: parents have a choice.”

While confidence in the School District of Philadelphia is morbid and tens of thousands of students remain on waiting lists to escape its failing schools, city charters are flourishing.

The Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, an independent analyst of charter school effectiveness, found that most Philadelphia charter students show significant achievement in both math and reading against the scores found in other public school models.

Philadelphia charter schools, particularly those serving minorities, economically disadvantaged and English-learning students, outperform traditional district schools to the equivalent of 40 additional days of learning growth in math and 28 days of instruction in reading, according to the study.

Public Citizens for Children & Youth, an organization that called for the flat rejection of all 39 charter school applications reviewed earlier this year, declined to comment on the findings of the study. PFT spokesman George Jackson also said he did not see the report.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten did see and comment on (part of) a recently published Pew poll that found an overwhelming majority respondents value education above all other issues facing the city of Philadelphia.

But the Pew poll also showed 58 percent of respondents view charter schools as improving education options and helping to keep middle-class families in the city, which Weingarten did not tweet about. According to Pew, residents with school-age children, those with household incomes between $30,000 and $50,000, and residents of South and Northeast Philadelphia, are among the most supportive of charters.

“It has to be really frustrating for these parents because charter schools allow them to control their lives a little more,” Hardy said. “When you can decide where your child goes to school, that’s empowering. But their power is being chipped away, little by little.”