NORRISTOWN — More than 30 superintendents from districts in five counties across the greater Philadelphia area announced their intentions to tackle charter school reform during a press conference Monday at the start of National School Choice Week.
“We are a coalition of school leaders who are standing up for public education and fighting for charter school reform,” said Frank Gallagher, superintendent of Souderton Area School District. “It is time that this happens.”
LEARN, or Leaders for Educational Accountability and Reform Network, is a new coalition of educators whose "first priority is to urge lawmakers to reform Pennsylvania's outdated charter school law," stated a press release announcing Monday's forum. Officials from five counties stood together at Whitehall Elementary School in Eagleville to speak about changing the current state of charter schools.
Jim Scanlon, superintendent of the West Chester Area School District, said he’s had experience dealing with charter school law for nearly 20 years.
“The only revisions to charter school law in that time have further undermined the local control and reduced our ability to hold schools accountable,” Scanlon said. “That has to change.”
Chris Dormer, superintendent of the Norristown Area School District, said there are no charter schools located within the school district, but there are more than 500 students living in the district who attend charters.
“My bigger concern is this: My school board ... has zero, zero say in what happens in the education of those 550 students that attend schools elsewhere,” Dormer said.
Norristown School District spends roughly $9.5 million on charter school tuition payments for schools that are not located within the district, he said.
Gallagher said charter schools do not conform to the same rules as public schools. He cited several instances including teacher certification and evaluations, noting that only 75 percent of charter school teachers need to be “properly certified.”
“How is that fair?” Gallagher asked.
Dormer said it’s crucial to increase “local control and accountability for where the dollars go.”
Several education leaders voiced their concerns with the inequity of the special education funding formulas for cyber charter schools.
A special education program within a school district costs about $7,000 per student for the district to provide, compared to $24,192 per pupil the district pays to a cyber charter school, according to June 2018 records from the Pennsylvania Association of Superintendents.
Students who may need only one type of special education service like speech still have to be covered by the full rate, superintendents noted.
“This flat rate calculation is inequitable and quite frankly it’s ridiculous,” Scanlon said.
Riley Finger, a senior at Souderton Area High School, also spoke at the conference Monday, praising the individualized approach he gets from the Souderton district to deal with hyperactivity. He said the school provides programs like the TEDx club which allows him to explore his passion for public speaking.
Superintendents also pointed to statistics about graduation rates among charters and public schools. According to 2018 statistics for Southeastern Pennsylvania schools from the Public Citizens for Children and Youth, an average 51 percent of cyber charter school students graduated as compared to the 93 percent average within school districts.
The educators called for legislative changes.
“Our current charter school law lacks basic provisions to hold charter schools accountable for being high quality academic institutions for their students and practicing sound financial stewardship of taxpayer dollars,” said Joyce Wilkerson, president of the board of education for the School District of Philadelphia.
Wagner Marseille, superintendent of Cheltenham School District, said being sensitive to the “taxpayer burden” is key and he called for “common sense legislation.”
“We need to think differently, and act differently with regards to that, and I want to echo my colleagues with Gov. Wolf and his commitment,” Marseille said.
Several legislators were also present and acknowledged the need for reform. State Rep. Matt Bradford, D-70th Dist., emphasized that this is “not a partisan issue.”
“We must get charter reform done here in Pennsylvania,” Bradford said.
In a statement to media after the press conference Monday, Ana Meyers, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, refuted the superintendents' claims.
“It is unfortunate that Pennsylvania’s school district leaders chose this week [National School Choice Week] to attack public charter schools, rather than work with them to find solutions,” Meyers said in a statement. “Worse, they consistently attack charter school families for choosing to leave their schools.”
Representatives from the following school districts were present during Monday’s press conference: Avon Grove School District, Bensalem Township School District, Bethlehem Area School District, Bristol Township School District, Centennial School District, Central Bucks School District, Cheltenham School District, Coatesville Area School District, Colonial School District, Downingtown Area School District, Ephrata Area School District, Interboro School District, Lower Merion School District, Methacton School District, Norristown Area School District, North Penn School District, Owen J. Roberts School District, Oxford School District, Perkiomen Valley School District, Phoenixville Area School District, Pottstown Area School District, Quakertown Community School District, Radnor Township School District, Rose Tree Media School District, School District of Haverford Township, School District of Philadelphia, Souderton Area School District, Southeast Delco School District, Upper Darby School District, West Chester Area School District, and William Penn School District.