The Harambee Institute of Science and Technology in Philadelphia generated some national headlines almost 10 years ago, but they had nothing to do with the accomplishments of its teachers or students.
The charter school ended up in the spotlight because its cafeteria was doubling as a bar on the weekends.
It’s a virtual certainty that nothing like this would ever happen at a public school, and the fact that it was occurring at a charter school perfectly illustrates the latitude they have been given in Pennsylvania since a law allowing their existence was enacted in 1997. Advocates have long argued that charter schools offer a private-sector solution to the woes of public schools, providing a quality education without, they say, the red tape and ossified rules that stymie the neighborhood schools children would otherwise attend.
The reality, however, is that charter schools frequently do no better than their public counterparts, and sometimes do worse. Cyber charter schools, in particular, have been shown to be particularly lackluster when it comes to academic achievement. But even as charters have fallen short of the promises their proprietors have made, they have continued to receive taxpayer money without the scrutiny that public schools must routinely undergo.
As a new school year is beginning, however, it looks like the pendulum is starting to shift in the other direction. On Aug. 13, Gov. Tom Wolf said that he is directing the state’s education department to come up with rules that, among other things, would ensure charter schools are as transparent and accountable as their public counterparts, prevent charter schools from overcharging students and their parents, let regulators audit their accounts, and require that proprietors provide more information on their plans when they apply to start a school, or renew an application.
Alas, the most significant changes must come with the cooperation of the Republican-controlled Legislature, and so far its members have been reluctant to upset the apple cart when it comes to charter schools. But lawmakers should revisit the charter school law, and put reforms in place that would prevent students from continuing to be enrolled in subpar charters, and place a freeze on additional cyber charters being approved in Harrisburg.
Above all, the way charter schools are funded needs to be made more fair. Why should a school district transfer its full per-pupil cost of educating a student to a cyber charter when the online school doesn’t have to pay for transportation, a building, a cafeteria, maintenance personnel and other day-to-day expenses? Why should one district pay a charter school $20,000, while another pays $10,000? Why should school districts be on the hook for tuition when a student in their district transfers to a charter school from a private institution?
Wolf was correct in pointing out that some charter schools do a fine job educating students. But he was also right when he called Pennsylvania’s charter law “one of the most fiscally irresponsible laws in the nation.” It needs to change.