Sunday, June 26, 2011

Commentary: In a rush for more charter schools?

This KSEC commentary was faxed to all members of the PA General Assembly this weekend

In a rush for more charter schools?

Questionable Academic Performance and Results for Kids

A new study by Stanford University casts doubt on whether Pennsylvania charter schools are a better choice for students.  The study by Stanford's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) concluded that "students in Pennsylvania charter schools on average make smaller learning gains" when compared with their traditional counterparts.

It notes that strong examples of quality charters do exist in the state, but policymakers need to "drive quality throughout the sector."

Researchers reported that students at 25 percent of the state's charter schools made significantly more learning gains in reading and math.  But they found that students at nearly half of the charter schools made significantly lower learning gains in both subjects than their traditional public school counterparts. 

Researchers also reported what they described as "alarming" results among all cyber charter schools.  Cyber students in Pennsylvania perform substantially lower than students at traditional public school in both subjects.  In May, 2011 it was reported that students graduating from the growing ranks of online high schools are running into a hurdle if their goal is to join the military: The Pentagon doesn't want many recruits with non-traditional diplomas.  A Department of Defense spokesperson noted that “Those who've opted out of the traditional educational system just don't stick with military service, she said. That includes students from what she called "any computer-based, virtual-learning program."

Since 2003, scores on the benchmark National Assessment of Educational Progress, considered to be the gold standard in K-12 standardized assessment, have never shown an advantage for charter schools as compared to regular public schools. 

A June 2009 Stanford University/CREDO study done in partnership with the pro school choice Walton Family Foundation and Pearson Learning Systems looked at charter performance in 15 states and the District of Columbia covering more than 70 percent of the nation’s charter school students.  It found that only 17% of charters had academic gains better than traditional public schools; 37% were worse and 46% showed no significant difference.

A June 2010 study conducted by Mathematica Policy Research and commissioned by the US Department of Education found that, “On average, charter middle schools that hold lotteries are neither more nor less successful than traditional public schools in improving student achievement, behavior, and school progress.

Governor Corbett recently attended the graduation at Philadelphia’s Boys Latin Charter School.  The combined proficient and advanced math and reading PSSA results for Boys Latin were 29.2 percent - the 29th worst out of 3051 schools statewide last year.   Sixteen charter schools had combined PSSA scores that would place them on the list of our 144 failing schools; somehow charter schools were not included on that list when it was prepared in support of the voucher bill, SB1.

Governor Corbett also visited the state’s largest charter school, Chester Community Charter School, which is operated under contract by a management company.  If you examine the AYP status of Chester Community compared with the five traditional elementary school in the Chester Upland School District it does better than some and worse than some.

Statewide, 2008-2009 data on the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s website showed 75 % of public schools making AYP; for the charters this was closer to 60%.   For 2009-2010, the Pittsburgh Tribune Review reported that about 75 percent of Pennsylvania public school students scored advanced or proficient in reading and math, compared with about 59 percent of charter school students.  When raising these statistics to charter school supporters they tell us that their students come from disadvantaged and challenging backgrounds.  Somehow that same excuse is not acceptable when mentioned by advocates of traditional public schools.

We regularly hear that competition will improve performance for all, or that charter schools that do not perform will be shut down by market forces.  There are presently 135 charter schools in Pennsylvania.  To our knowledge, since Pennsylvania passed its charter school law in 1997 only one charter school has been closed for academic performance reasons.

Great “Gold Standard” Results for Owners, CEOs, Politicians

There is little doubt, however, that the owner of Pennsylvania’s largest cyber charter, who took $10 million of taxpayer money from his school’s fund balance to build a state-of-the-art performing arts center for his town, would tell you that charters are an unbridled success; with potential we have not yet seen.  So would the owner of Pennsylvania’s largest charter school, who, according to Pennsylvania’s Campaign Finance Reporting website is able to regularly write large political donation checks.

Political Contributions of Vahan Gureghian from 2007 to present:

2007 YTD
2008 YTD
2009 YTD
2010 YTD
2011 YTD

A June 2009 Inquirer article cited state records showing that the management company contracted to run the Chester Community Charter School had been paid $60.6 million in public funds since 1999.  Those records showed that the portion of the school's expenditures going to business and administration was consistently among the highest for Pennsylvania charter schools, and its spending percentage on instruction was among the lowest.  The management company had sued to block release of the records, citing trade secrets. 

While the compensation of all of our public school superintendents is public knowledge, no one seems to know what Mr Gureghian’s compensation is as the owner of Charter Management Company.  Doesn’t the public have a right to know how public funds are spent by public schools and by private management firms that receive those public funds?

In April 2010, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the Superintendent of the Lower Merion School District, one of the highest performing public school districts in the state, with 6943 students was being paid $201,800.   

Compare that with the reported salaries of 5 Philadelphia charter school CEO’s and their respective enrollments:

$ 241,033 with 588 students
$193,510 with 929 students
$189,844 with 155 students
$155,000 with 896 students
$153,629 with 1202 students.

It is interesting to note that at the same time that we have been debating whether to consolidate school districts to save money on buildings, superintendents and senior staff we would advocate creating additional charter schools, each with their attendant overhead costs. 

Difficult enough in traditional public schools, public scrutiny and accountability become all the more difficult as these entities and their attendant for-profit management companies proliferate.  Charter school boards, owners and operators should be subject to the same fiscal transparency, accountability and reporting requirements as traditional public school boards.

Keystone State Education Coalition Co-Chairs:
Lawrence A. Feinberg, School District of Haverford Township, Delaware County
Shauna D’Alessandro, West Jefferson Hills School District, Allegheny County
Lynn Foltz, Wilmington Area School District, Lawrence County
Mark B. Miller, Centennial School District, Bucks County
Keystone State Education Coalition  2023 Olcott Avenue, Ardmore, PA 19003-2916
Phone: 610-896-3880  Fax: 610-896-3890

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