Our opinion: Some charter reform needed

There is something amiss with Pennsylvania’s charter schools, those publicly funded, privately operated schools that function as an alternative to public schools.

There is some inequity in how they are funded with respect to their costs. There are questions about their financial and educational oversight. There are questions about how they are even given approval to exist.

Here is an issue much more complicated than many others that the state General Assembly anguishes over, and one of the difficulties is deciding how education, whether public or quasi-public, is governed.

Currently, local school districts are responsible for reviewing and either approving or turning down charter applications, although their decisions can be appealed to the state Board of Education. Since brick and mortar charter schools siphon students and funding from local districts, that seems like a reasonable system. However, cyber charters, which aren’t tied to enrollment from a particular district, send their applications directly to the state.

In some other states, charters are reviewed by independent authorizers. In New York State, for instance, the charter authorizer is the state Board of Regents and the trustees of the State University of New York.

School boards in Pennsylvania don’t like the idea of independent authorizers because it removes local control. Local control of public education has been a long-standing tradition Pennsylvania and many other states. Most nuts and bolts decisions are made on a local level by locally elected representatives. While charters have their own operating boards, their main source of funding is passed through the local public school district. Public school boards believe they should have some say in that matter.

Like the muddle that befuddles the concept of public-private partnerships in economic development projects, the melding of public money and private management is fraught with subtle conflicts.

When the charter school concept was born a couple decades ago in response to the failings of some individual schools, most of them in poor inner-cities, the idea spread like wildfire. After all, if an idea can improve education among those most in need of improvement, why couldn’t it improve education across all socio-economic and geographic lines? The rush to charterdom left some gaps in management that are now starting to become evident.

We’re not ready to advocate for an independent authorizer, but we do believe that the state should beef up its oversight of charter schools, a move that those institutions which uphold high financial and educational standards should welcome. Failing charter schools should not be allowed to sully the image of successful charters.