1:13pm March 24, 2013

Philadelphia Lawmaker Releases Harsh Report on Charter Schools

Photography for the Mystic Valley Charter Schools.

By The Philadelphia Tribune

State Representative James Roebuck – long a critic of the manner in which the state’s charter schools are managed and financed, and the lack of comprehensive oversight – has issued a scathing, top-down report on the dozens of charter schools throughout the state that are involved in ongoing investigations or have other pertinent issues.

Roebuck’s 41-page report, “Charter and Cyber Charter School Reform Update and Comprehensive Reform Legislation,” provides and update on the charter schools’ irregularities and also includes the Roebuck-authored House Bill 934, a comprehensive charter school reform legislation that will reorganize that system’s governance, financial reporting and accountability.

Overall, Roebuck’s legislation is aimed at recouping $365 million in overpayments made to the state’s charter school operators.

“These investigations and incidents are often reported only in dribs and drabs, and I feel it’s important for Pennsylvania families and taxpayers to have an overall picture. The Democratic Education Committee report is drawn from credible sources such as the Philadelphia City Controller, the Pennsylvania Auditor General and news media across the state,” said Roebuck, who serves as Democratic Chairman of the House Education Committee. “It shows investigations or problems at 44 charter and cyber charter schools, including the six schools covered in the state auditor general’s report last week and the school that had its charter revoked last week and is set to close in three months.

“My understanding is that 37 of the 44 schools mentioned in our report are still operating.”

The six schools Roebuck referred to are all outside of Philadelphia and each had received improper lease reimbursements totaling $500,000. Those schools are: School Lane Charter School in Bucks County; Fell Charter School in Lackawanna County; Roberto Clemente Charter School in Allentown; Bear Creek Charter School in Bear Creek Township; Keystone Charter School in Mercer County and Evergreen Charter School in Monroe County.

“With school budgets strained again this year, it is important that every education dollar possible goes to classroom learning,” Said Auditor General Eugene DePasquale when the problems were publicized. “If the improper lease reimbursement problem is more widespread among the state’s 157 brick-and-mortar charter schools it could be siphoning millions of dollars away from other education priorities.”

While much of Roebuck’s report is dedicated to a state view of the charter school system, it also provides several interesting anecdotes regarding charter schools within Philadelphia. According to the report, in both the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 school year, traditional public schools performed better than charter schools and significantly better than cyber charter schools in terms of achieving Adequate Yearly Progress. AYP is determined by student academic performance on state reading and math assessments (the controversial PSSA Exams). For 2011-12, while 61 percent of school districts met AYP, 50 percent of public schools met AYP. In contrast, only 29 percent of charter schools met AYP and none of the 12 cyber charter schools met AYP.

The report drills down even further, noting that the percentage of students performing at grade level in math and reading in order for a school to achieve AYP increased from 67 percent of students in math in 2010-2011 to 78 percent in 2011-2012 and increased from 72 percent in reading in 2010-2011 to 81 percent in 2011-2012.

Tellingly, Roebuck’s report claims the Pennsylvania Department of Education currently operates a double standard regarding AYP benchmarks for traditional public schools and their charter and cyber-charter competitors.

“However, when the Department of Education (PDE) released the AYP results for 2011-2012 it decided to change the method of determining whether charter and cyber charter schools met AYP targets under NCLB. PDE made this change even though it application to the US Department of Education to this change under the NCLB law had not been approved by the US Department of Education,” read a portion of Roebuck’s report. “Instead of using the same method of determining AYP for a traditional public school as is currently under No Child Left Behind for determining AYP for charter and cyber charter schools, PDE proposed to determine AYP for charter and cyber charter schools by the method used to determine AYP for a school district.”

Roebuck’s report also claims that under the new method the education department is now applying to charter schools, the school’s overall student body would not have to meet PSSA proficiency percentage targets. Instead, a school’s student body would be divided into up to three grade spans (elementary grades 3-5, middle grades 6-8, and high school grades 9-12), and if the students in at least one of the those spans met proficiency percentage targets, including the subgroups within that span, the entire school would be regarded as having met that component of AYP. In addition, PDE is not requiring that a single grade span meet targets in both math and reading, but is awarding AYP designation if at least one grade span meets targets in each subject.

The complete report is available online as a downloadable PDF athttp://www.pahouse.com/PR/Charter_and_Cyber_Charter_School_Report.pdf

“With investigations or problems at 37 out of 173 charter and cyber charter schools currently operating in Pennsylvania, that’s more than 20 percent. I continue to support the concept of charter schools as centers of innovations that can be duplicated in other public schools, but this compilation shows a need for major reforms in governance, financing and accountability of these publicly funded schools,” Roebuck said. “If any other vendors were charging public schools 5 to 20 percent too much, we would demand reform – not push for ‘direct pay’ that would take the payments out of school districts’ state funding before that funding reaches the districts.

“The reality is, the money for the charters comes out of the school district’s budget, so if there are things being done wrong or incorrectly, then that money should go back to the school districts,” Roebuck added, noting that he is a supporter of the overall thrust and mission of charter schools. “There are more charters in Philadelphia than anywhere else in the state, but what I am looking at is stopping the abuses, so that going forward, those school districts won’t be giving money to the charters who are using it incorrectly.”


Contact staff writer Damon C. Williams at (215) 893-5745 or dwilliams@phillytrib.com.

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The Philadelphia Tribune
The Philadelphia Tribune



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