Monday, December 29, 2008

Pennsylvania, And Charter Schools

Perhaps charter schools are not a panacea.

The toast of many Republicans and New Democrats, charter schools are no longer free from criticism. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports today of a federal criminal probe into at least four charter schools in Philadelphia. Allegations of nepotism, conflicts of interest and financial mismanagement are not uncommon.

And no wonder, given that

The law allows little scrutiny of charters. Districts approve charters but have limited power to shut them down. The state exercises scant oversight on charter spending, which totals more than $633 million this year.

The law dictates a crazy-quilt pattern of funding for charters. Each district pays a different amount even when the students attend the same charter. For example, Philadelphia pays $8,088 per student; Jenkintown, $15,174. Cybers get the same payments as other charters even though students receive online instruction at home.

Charters are paid extra for special-education students, regardless of their disability. There is no requirement they spend all the money on special-education services. Chester Community Charter spends only 20.7 percent of its special-education funds on special education.

The law bars school board members from serving on charter boards, but it does not prohibit politicians or a founder's friends and relatives.

It's clear, nevertheless, why so many conservatives like the idea of charter schools. In a 12/25/08 column in the Wall Street Journal, editorial writer Collin hailed President-elect Obama's selection of Chicago School CEO Arne Duncan (known for his Renaissance 2010 program, which calls for closing approximately 60 public schools and opening 100 new ones, many of them charters, by 2010. He laments:

unions aren't about to slink off into the sunset. If they're losing some of their clout at the national level, they maintain their grip locally. In many places, teachers angle to usurp the language of the reformers while pushing their own agenda.

It's understandable that Levy says little about academic achievement. However, in a 12/23/08 opinion piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kevin Kumashiro noted Duncan's market-based school reform approach and wrote

There is evidence that encouraging choice and competition will not raise district-wide achievement, and charter schools in particular are not outperforming regular schools. There is evidence that choice programs actually exacerbate racial segregation. And there is evidence that high-stakes testing increases the drop-out rate.

The effort to give up on America's public schools will continue, perhaps in the next Administration, and probably beyond. Responsible policymakers not tied to an anti-union or anti-government ideology, though, will consider the actual causes of our inadequate educational system instead of rushing headlong into unproven, costly alternatives which undermine public schools and do little if anything to help students.

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