It might surprise those listening to Gov. Tom Wolf constantly attacking public charter schools that the charter school leaders in Pennsylvania support comprehensive education reform and have supported it for years.
What we don’t support are the arbitrary funding cuts the governor and anti-charter activists seek to prevent Pennsylvania families from enrolling in public charter schools. The governor doesn’t want reform. He wants to stop families from leaving failing district schools.
In contrast, public charter school leaders want real reform. To us, reform is about educational options for children. To them, reform is about more money.
In January, the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools announced its legislative agenda to ensure ALL schools are fairly funded. For years, charter school leaders have supported a measure to create a Charter School Funding Advisory Committee. We also have supported legislation that would strengthen ethics requirements for charter schools, reform the charter renewal process and allow students to participate in dual enrollment programs.
On average, charter school students receive 25 percent less funding than their peers in district schools. Now the governor wants to cut more resources from these students in the midst of our ongoing struggles with COVID.
The pandemic has shown that Pennsylvania families need more choices in public education, not fewer. Tens of thousands of Pennsylvania families in 2020 chose to leave district schools to seek quality educational options at public charter schools. In the Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia, thousands of students — the majority of whom are from low-income homes and minority backgrounds — sit on charter school waitlists.
In Pennsylvania, the vast majority of students in public charter schools come from economically disadvantaged families and underserved communities. The families who send their children to public charter schools often can’t afford the tuition of private schools. Nor can they afford to move from a school district that doesn’t serve their children’s educational needs.
Public charter schools are their chance for a quality education.
At Executive Education Academy Charter School, we have a student population that is 73 percent Latino, 18 percent Black, 7 percent white and 2 percent other descent. Nearly 5 percent of our students have limited English proficiency, and 10 percent require special education services.
In Pennsylvania, the students served by public charter schools are among the most vulnerable. We hear story after story about desperate parents who seek public charter schools to help their children escape a district school that is failing them. They leave for many reasons, including bullying, low academic expectations and neglect.
The pandemic has made conditions worse for many families.
Charter schools are nonprofit public schools that are independently operated. That means the school’s administration has the innovation, freedom and flexibility to move quickly to meet challenges.
When the governor last year closed schools because of the pandemic, public charter schools took advantage of that innovation – including online curriculum and services – to meet the needs of their students. Many charter schools faced the same problems as district schools, including trying to ensure all their students had access to technology. However, the flexibility of charter schools allowed many of them to switch to online learning quickly and resume educational services.
Pennsylvania’s public cyber charter schools, which have been teaching online for more than 20 years, also offered their guidance and assistance free to any brick-and-mortar school – district, charter or private – in the state. That is why the Charter School Act was created by state lawmakers, who wanted to develop innovation in public education for all schools to share.
A recent poll showed that nearly 70 percent of Pennsylvania supports public cyber charter schools as an educational option that should be available to families.
So why does the governor want to punish families who exercise their right to choose a public charter school? I would encourage the governor to meet with charter school families and find out if they believe their children deserve less funding than their peers in district schools.
By Robert Lysek, the CEO of Executive Education Academy Charter School, a K-12 public charter school, and Board President of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.