DN Editorial: Editorial: Latest charter-reform bill better, still needs more work

Posted: October 16, 2012

CHARTER schools have become Rorschach tests. Depending on who's looking, they are:

* Independent public schools not confined by big district bureaucracies to create innovative education alternatives.

* A way to dismantle the public system, and let "the free market" dictate education.

* A way to broaden the choices for parents and save children from failing schools.

* Money traps with no accountability that are siphoning off public money from local districts and making some operators rich.

It may be that the truth contains a little of each of these pictures. A charter reform bill being fast-tracked in Harrisburg that could be voted on as early as today may clarify some of these conflicting views. But for all its positives, the overall bill doesn't go far enough.

SB1115 includes positive changes from an earlier bill. For example, a mechanism that would have taken control and authorizing powers from local districts and give it to a newly created state-wide authorizer has apparently been abandoned. That's indeed good news. Also good news: a proposal that would have exempted private operators from right-to know laws has bitten the dust. There appears to be some effort to increase the accountability of charters and cyber-charters, and proposed teacher standards and evaluations for charters are more in line with those for traditional public schools.

However, the bill would retain language that would keep districts from setting caps on the number of charters it can authorize, and this remains problematic since every charter school - and every charter student - represents direct financial impact on the districts. And without the ability to control enrollment, how can districts be held accountable for their own budgets?

The inability to put caps on charter enrollment gives an imprimatur to an unlimited number of charters, as if there is consensus that all charter schools work. There are many successful charters, which could be a shining beacon for the future of public education. But there are plenty that aren't, and no one has bothered to study the differences. In fact, actual data on individual charter-school performance is hard to come by. And the state's Department of Education isn't helping.

Last month, the state announced that charters were out-performing traditional public schools on Adequate Yearly Progress. But the tests administered to charter students were based on a new set of rules less rigorous than those followed by traditional schools, and which hadn't been approved by the federal government.

The charter reform bill would also set up a commission to look closely at charter funding. But we'd like to see a commission that includes the state, local districts, charter schools and others to create a clearinghouse for information about charters - including mission, board, budget and performance measures - that would benefit parents, students and the public who funds them. As we wrote last week, many charters are building brick walls around themselves. Before we decide that charters are so effective that there should be no limit to their growth, lawmakers and leaders need to do a lot more homework and collect a lot more data.

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