When the pandemic upended our lives, it was common to hear the message: “We are all in this together.” It was an attempt to acknowledge that things may be different but we can work together to find the answers.
Public charter schools rose to that challenge. Charter schools quickly adapted innovative solutions to learning and meeting the needs of their students. Brick-and-mortar charter schools became community centers for food distribution and health care services. They supplied thousands of computers to their students to learn from home, and their teachers learned how to support their students at home.
Pennsylvania’s 14 public cyber charter schools offered to help any brick-and-mortar school – district, private or charter – with virtual learning programs. Cyber charters have been teaching students online for 20 years. They know what works and what doesn’t, and they shared that knowledge with their colleagues in Pennsylvania and across the country.
Charter schools remain committed to embracing the words of Gov. Tom Wolf, that “we are all in this together,” but school district leaders don’t seem to support the same spirit of cooperation. Once again, they are accusing public charter schools of causing their financial problems.
They are particularly angry that thousands of families have enrolled in public charter schools and had the audacity to take some of their tax dollars with them.
Their answer is to stop families from exercising their right to educational options, by eliminating charter schools or by drastically cutting their funding. The arbitrary cuts would make it impossible for many charter schools to continue to offer comprehensive services to families.
A majority of the more than 143,000 charter students in Pennsylvania come from economically disadvantaged and minority families. Many live in underserved communities. And a high percentage of charter students require special education services.
At my school, Executive Education Academy Charter School in Allentown, the student population is 73 percent Latino, 18 percent African American, 7 percent white and 2 percent other descent. Approximately 10 percent of our students require special education services, and 5 percent have limited English proficiency.
The pandemic forced district schools to do something they have resisted for 20 years: embrace virtual learning. I find it amusing that, just a few months before the pandemic shut down schools, district leaders were in Harrisburg pushing lawmakers to cut cyber charter funding, saying they could educate large numbers of students online and do it better and cheaper than cyber schools.
The pandemic was their test. They failed.
Those same district leaders now are asking lawmakers for more money, not less, to teach students online and offer virtual learning programs. Perhaps they are ready to acknowledge the unique costs faced by public cyber charter schools — unique costs that they previously have denied existed.
Like district schools, brick-and-mortar public charter schools had to transition quickly to online learning. Many charter school families in underserved communities, unlike families in wealthy school districts, don’t have access to high-speed internet or devices that allow them to learn virtually. Charter schools are working with government agencies and businesses to address this “digital divide.”
Unfortunately, it seems district leaders would rather demonize public charter schools and charter families than tackle their real financial problems, such as their growing pension expenses. It’s easier to complain about charter families leaving district schools than to improve their services in an effort to keep them. Their answer is to cut funding and close charter schools.
There is a better way. Leaders of public charter schools — both brick-and-mortar and cyber — have supported fair and reasonable funding reforms for years. We remain ready to discuss meaningful funding reforms that could address the financial challenges we all face while protecting educational options for thousands of families.
The pandemic has illustrated the importance of educational options for families. One size does not fit all. We need to come together to reform education so all public schools — district and charter — can succeed.