Inquirer Editorial: No turning back on charters

Students at an assembly in Philly's Walter D. Palmer charter.
Students at an assembly in Philly's Walter D. Palmer charter. (VIVIANA PERNOT / Staff)
Posted: June 02, 2014

Much of the emotional national debate over school vouchers has subsided in the wake of arguments that have been just as animated concerning the insidious proliferation of charter schools.

The rapid growth of charters in the past 10 years indicates America's consumer society is beginning to accept the notion that a good education, rather than being a right, is a commodity to be bought and sold.

As a result, the shoppers' motto - "Let the buyer beware" - has become the slogan for parents trying to choose a charter school that will deliver what it advertised. Too often, as test scores attest, they are disappointed.

The charter-school explosion caught many advocates of traditional public schools off guard. Their argument that giving taxpayer money in the form of vouchers to private-school operators was wrong didn't apply to charters, which are public schools, too.

The impact on regular schools, however, has been almost as damaging as it would be with vouchers, with public dollars marching out the door with the students who transfer to charters. School districts with fewer regular students, but much the same overhead, have suffered as a result.

That's why the recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling that a charter school couldn't exceed an enrollment limit in the agreement it signed with the Philadelphia School District was so important. The Walter D. Palmer School, which had 675 more students than it had agreed to enroll, must refund $1.3 million as a result.

The case shows the need for some local control over charters - not only to ensure that traditional public schools, which still have most of the students, keep an adequate level of funding, but also to provide the close scrutiny needed to weed out bad charters.

Both New Jersey and Pennsylvania are considering updates to their charter laws that would dilute local control. A Pennsylvania bill would bypass local boards by allowing universities to authorize and regulate charters. A New Jersey bill would vest authority over charters in a new state commission and give local boards a minority role in approving new schools.

Each state's circumstances are different, but their goals should be the same: Make sure students seeking a better education in a charter actually get it, and that taxpayers footing the bill get their money's worth.

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