Wanting public money, but not the accountability

May 20, 2013

More and more, it appears that Pennsylvania’s charter schools want to have it both ways.

They want generous servings of public dollars while, at the same time, avoiding the accountability that comes with being the recipients of taxpayer beneficence.

For evidence, look no further than what appears to be their spotty compliance with the state’s Right to Know Law. Last week, Terry Mutchler, executive director of the Office of Open Records, told a state Senate committee that the 180 charter schools operating in Pennsylvania routinely ignore requests for information, despite being publicly funded institutions.

“They don’t feel they should be subject to this law, or, candidly, subject to you,” Mutchler said. To drive the point home, she added, “They are a cancer on the otherwise healthy Right to Know Law.”

Mutchler told senators that her office had handled appeals in 239 cases where charter schools thumbed their noses at requests for information, such as details on payrolls and budgets, and in all but six of those cases, the schools were forced to hand over the information as requested. Roberta DiLorenzo, the superintendent of Washington School District, can also attest to the tendency of charter schools to hold their files a little too closely to their chests. DiLorenzo told the district’s school board earlier this year that she requested attendance and progress reports from the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School in Beaver, along with notification of when a student drops out of the program, but was not provided with details. Instead, she received a “cease and desist” brush-off letter from the school’s attorney.

This in spite of the fact that the district has shelled out $1.9 million over the past five years so that about 60 Washington-area students could enroll in cybercharter schools.

Advocates of charter schools, both of the brick-and-mortar and cyber variety, say they imprint marketplace principles of competition and rigor on the educational endeavor, offer students a choice beyond the one-size-fits-all offerings of public schools and provide a degree of accountability unknown to their public counterparts.

But several nationwide studies of charter schools have shown that the academic performance of students enrolled in them differs little from those in public schools. It’s much the same here in Pennsylvania. Figures released earlier this year showed that no cybercharter school in the commonwealth made Adequate Yearly Progress on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams in 2012, while only 43 of the state’s 180 charter schools hit AYP benchmarks. Earlier efforts to treat individual charter schools as districts to tabulate AYP scores, which would have limited the number of grades tested, were shot down by the U.S. Department of Education, which said such a switch would not be consistent with federal regulations.

Recently, legislators in Harrisburg have been making noise about overhauling the way tuition money is paid to charter schools. They are also talking about tinkering with how the school’s charters are renewed and mandating that the schools provide greater transparency and accountability. These are all good ideas. Legislators should also demand that charter schools be more forthcoming when it comes to providing information to the people who are paying their bills.



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