Advocates debate charter school accountability at A.G. hearing

Posted: March 17, 2014

EDUCATION ADVOCATES CALLED for increased oversight and transparency of the state's charter schools, while sparring over a state Senate proposal that would allow universities to authorize new charters during a public hearing yesterday at City Hall.

The hearing was the last of five held across the state by Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale on the topic of charters, which have grown sharply during the last decade. DePasquale, who took office last year, has chided state education officials for not holding charters more accountable.

Some advocates yesterday suggested that all charters should undergo yearly reviews, either by the state or their authorizing districts, to ensure the schools are up to par academically and financially.

"We should be, just like with a regular public school, saying, 'Hmm, you're on track, hmm, you're not,' and have a correction action plan that ensures incrementally you move to a better place year over year in order for you to be assured renewal at your five-year renewal mark," Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, testified. "There's no reason to wait 'til five years."

Cooper, who worked as a policy official under former Gov. Rendell, said both the state education department and Philadelphia School District currently lack the capacity to do that.

Helen Gym, co-founder of Parents United for Public Education, told DePasquale, who was joined by two members of the state House, that such a review should include a visit to the school.

"I don't think that the school district knows half of these charter schools personally very well," Gym said, as students from the Walter D. Palmer Leadership and Learning Partners Charter School listened in the audience.

In Philadelphia, which has more than half of the state's charter school students, district officials are also considering changes to the way charters are authorized. Part of those changes would require operators to agree to enrollment caps, which have long been a point of contention.

Part of the discussion yesterday also centered on state Senate Bill 1085, which would make several changes to the charter school law, including allowing universities to give the green light to charter applicants.

While critics say the legislation would further cripple public schools, supporters claim it would eliminate a conflict between districts and charters, with which they directly compete.

"That conflict of interest should be removed, and I think having alternative authorizers, whether that's universities or higher ed institutions that have been proposed in Senate legislation, or some other statewide authorizer, would really help us remove that ... and ensure that good charter schools and new charter schools can expand for families who are looking for that opportunity," said Nathan Benefield, vice president of policy analysis at the Commonwealth Foundation.

Members of the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS) and ACTION United rallied outside City Hall, holding signs and calling for better oversight.

"Charters are operating with very little regulation and accountability," said Kia Philpot-Hinton, a parent and member of ACTION United. "And it's hurting our public schools."

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