Mercury Editorial Joins Superintendents Calling for Charter Reform

Editorial: Pennsylvania school superintendents taking aim at charter school reform.

The long-simmering issue of charter school reform in Pennsylvania was brought to the forefront last week, which was National School Choice Week, by a legion of school superintendents banding together in a call for change in charter school laws.

More than 30 superintendents from districts in five counties across the greater Philadelphia region stood together at a press conference in Eagleville, Montgomery County, to announce themselves as a new coalition, the Leaders for Educational Accountability and Reform Network.

LEARN is comprised of “school leaders who are standing up for public education and fighting for charter school reform,” said Frank Gallagher, superintendent of Souderton Area School District.

Superintendents from districts, large and small, with diverse demographics took to the podium with statistics and anecdotes about the damaging effect of current charter school law on local public school finances.

Jim Scanlon, superintendent of the West Chester Area School District, said the only reforms to charter school law in Pennsylvania in recent years have “further undermined the local control and reduced our ability to hold schools accountable.”

Chris Dormer, superintendent of the Norristown Area School District, said his district spends roughly $9.5 million on charter school tuition payments for 550 students to attend schools that are not located within the district.

Gallagher cited differences in teacher certification and evaluations, noting that only 75 percent of charter school teachers need to be “properly certified.”

Superintendents cited inequity in special education costs: A special education program within a school district costs about $7,000 per student for the district to provide, compared to $24,192 per pupil the district pays to a charter school, according to June 2018 records from the Pennsylvania Association of Superintendents.

Superintendents also pointed to statistics about graduation rates among charters and public schools. According to 2018 statistics for Southeastern Pennsylvania from Public Citizens for Children and Youth, an average 51 percent of cyber charter school students graduated as compared to the 93 percent average within school districts.

The coalition’s points were immediately refuted in a statement by Ana Meyers, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools. She criticized LEARN for making their stand at the start of National School Choice Week which is intended to showcase charter schools in a positive light.

“It’s clear to anyone paying attention that their political agenda is to put more money in their coffers, not help students seeking the best educational options available,” she said, of the superintendents. A statement on the group’s website refuted comments from the LEARN press conference point by point.

For their part, the superintendents made it clear they have no problem with school choice for families, as long as that choice is held accountable both in funding equity and in performance standards. The superintendents called on state lawmakers to propose reform and “get it done.”

The one group left out in this perennial back and forth are local taxpayers, who have no say in the drain on public school finances created by current charter school law. If all schools were funded through state coffers, the debate might be different. As long as Pennsylvania funds education through the local property tax, charter reform proponents say legislators have an obligation to free the local districts from mandates and laws that drain their finances.

During the past few years, calls for reform have been growing as several common-sense proposals have been floated in Harrisburg. House Bill 526 and Senate Bill 34 -- neither of which made it to floor votes -- could save $19.6 million in school taxes each year in Montgomery County alone, according to a March 2019 analysis by the Montgomery County Intermediate Unit. The bills would put the burden of tuition onto parents choosing a cyber charter if their home school district operates a comparable cyber program. The Senate bill was sponsored by Berks County's State Sen. Judy Schwank, D-11th Dist.

Current charter school law creates a critical financial burden for local districts, superintendents say, a fact that drives the passion for reform on display Monday.

We applaud this group for showing leadership on behalf of local school boards and taxpayers, and we urge state lawmakers to heed their call. This debate should not be partisan nor should it hinge on attitudes about school choice. Reform is needed to manage the tax burden and to ensure that children, regardless of choice, are in schools that are held accountable to high standards.

We urge lawmakers to learn from these school leaders and enact needed reforms.

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