DN Editorial: Unchartered territory

Posted: November 19, 2013

PARENTS considering sending their kids to charter schools - or Pennsylvania lawmakers who are considering sending charter-school bills out of committee for a vote - should answer the following questions:

1.Parents shopping for a charter school can get detailed information on the founders, boards, philosophy, test scores as well as any federal probes or indictments a charter may be subject to from which source?

a) The Pennsylvania Coalition of State Charter Schools

b) Pennsylvania Department of Education

c) Individual charter websites

d) None of the above

2.The number of state charter schools making Adequate Yearly Progress last year was:

a) 78 percent

b) 50 percent

c) 28 percent

d) Depends on who's keeping score.

Senators in Harrisburg are getting ready to move on a charter-school reform bill this week, and while their instincts for reform may be sound, the details of that bill have skipped over some preliminary steps that should have established a more solid foundation for charters from the beginning, when they were approved in 1997. The reforms contained in Senate bill 1085 will do nothing to address the real problems with charters: lack of rigorous oversight, and a near invisibility of any useful information that would help parents and allow others to evaluate their effectiveness, including the taxpayers who support them - to the tune of nearly $1 billion.

The answer to question 1 is "d." Parents can get more information about a box of cereal than they can about individual charter schools.

And "c" is correct for question 2.

Consider two notable examples: Nick Trombetta, founder of Pennsylvania Cyber Charter Schools, accused of stealing $1 million from the school, and Dorothy June Brown, founder of four Philadelphia charters, now on federal trial on a $6.7 million charter wire-fraud case.

Websites for the schools associated with Trombetta and Brown are scrubbed clean of any mention of the two, although Pennsylvania Cyber Charter released a series of upbeat releases when Trombetta stepped down in 2012.

That lack of critical information is typical on most charter websites; many have the barest of information and don't include board members or their affiliations, to say nothing of operating budgets or other financial information.

In fact, it's hard to find much detailed information on charters from any source, including local districts or the state department of education.

Though considered public schools, charters promote and attract educational entrepreneurs who, along with education training, need business skills to not only make their schools operationally and financially viable, but also worthy of taxpayer support.

And yet the gist of the current law that the senate may consider this week does nothing that would shed more light into charter operations; instead, it would grant them more autonomy from their overseeing districts, allowing them to appeal to the state directly for payments, for example, and eliminating a district's ability to establish enrollment caps, among other changes.

Lawmakers should remain supportive of and optimistic for charters as an alternative. But too many remain behind opaque veils.

The more information we all have about charters, the better off students, parents and the taxpayers who support them will be. That's the reform bill we need to see out of Harrisburg.

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