The Dispute That Never Dies: Do Charter Schools Earn An A+ Or F-?

By David A. Atkinson

Because there are no higher stakes than the future of our children, education debates are traditionally fraught and furious affairs. There are more theories on how to fix problems than channels in the standard cable package. For those sitting in the stands, education is easy. You know, the everything I learned in kindergarten routine. Critics do not have to square their policy prescriptions. They do not have to figure out how to fill the gap between what they want to spend and what they object to in the way of taxes to pay for it. For the people in the business of education, it must on many days seem impossibly hard. Hard to deal with mounting mandates and paperwork, redundant requirements, limited resources, conflicting demands, longer hours, less encouragement, the sword of litigation, and infrequent expressions of gratitude. Daily, we witness how progress gets torpedoed by partisanship and philosophical purity. Exhibit A: charter schools.

Today’s quiz has a single question: Define charter schools. Are they innovative schools that are positive refuges for students and families disserved and disillusioned by the public schools? Or are they elitist academies creaming off the best students, and suctioning up too many tax dollars while delivering substandard results? The answer depends on whom you ask. The reality is likely somewhere in-between, but neither side has ever seemed inclined to concede anything.

Opinions on charter schools reflect the gaping philosophical divide in education. The arguments are framed in collective interest versus individual rights. Sound familiar? Some public officials insist on referring to charter schools as private, although by law they clearly are not. On any given day, 5 out of 6 students are attending public schools. Yet, some education advocates worry more about the one they do not have control over than the five they have responsibility for.

Given his professed commitment to education, Governor Tom Wolf’s intense dislike for charter schools is hard to fathom. His steadfast belief in the intrinsic superiority of the education monopoly strikes people as rather barnacle encrusted. After seven years of robust charter bashing, he is not likely to undergo a Road-to-Damascus conversion. Whether by law, regulation, executive order, or punitive fee, he has tried strenuously to drive up costs for charters, stanch their growth, and tarnish their allure. His approach resembles a strategy of destroying charter schools to save students, when sending parents believe the charters are educational salvation for their kids.

Meanwhile, many school administrators seem content to loudly complain about unfair competition rather than do the hard work of competing to retain or bring back students. After all, it is much easier to pick at problems in non-traditional schools than it is to solve complex difficulties in your own. Such animosity has carried through since the inception of charter schools.

The shopworn and overwrought argument that charters are killing public education skips over the reality. Granted, there is little local school districts can do about rising costs such as pension contributions and mandated services such as special education. So the frustration and fury get concentrated on an element they innately dislike – charter schools. While the supposed draining of dollars triggers the outcry, truth is that funding is an aggravating consideration. The mere existence of charters is offensive.

This is not to grant charter schools immunity from criticism. Does the law need revamped? Most assuredly. Are there examples where the bookkeeping practices of charter schools are questionable? Sure there are. The reverse is also true. Plenty of news reports over the years show public school systems are not always fastidious about their finances. No form of schooling is a guarantee of money being spent wisely and effectively. Remember when student testing was going to provide the measuring stick for improving student performance? How did that work out? Again, answers vary. The bottom line is, whether it worked or not, a lot of time and money is routinely spent on it. The education annals are replete with claims of how results will improve if only more money is available. Still, the pressure for change and reform and retrenchment and back to the basics instruction persists.

By this time, each side has compiled a lengthy list of their virtues and the sins of the other side. Can Pennsylvania reach a new equilibrium on policy and funding? Clearly circumstances have changed over the years. When the law was written, the thinking was directed toward brick-and-mortar charters. The notion of cyber charters was about as imminent as man landing on Mars. Now that investment has run ahead of policy, it becomes much harder politically and economically to pull back.

To find a tolerable middle ground of reform is going to require a serious dialing back on the vituperation. Each side amplifies its strengths and tears into the weaknesses of the other with the zeal and hyperbole of a no-holds-barred presidential campaign. That sort of habitual confrontation does not lend itself to easily shifting into negotiating mode. No model of education is going to be beneficial or superior in all cases. A reputable study of any type of schooling will provide material each side can cherry-pick to support their argument.

It could be that the rulebook going forward is not identical for brick-and-mortar charters and cyber charters. If there is a provable discrepancy between the required funding and the results for the two kinds of charters, then it is hard to justify treating them similarly in every respect.

One of the salient facts is that nearly half of charter school students are in Philadelphia. This not only complicates the debate with all the perceptions and biases people have toward the city, but also provides a lot of the numbers that play into assessments of the performance and financial impacts of charters. Successes and failures are there for each side to wave as vindicating their view.

The common argument of leveling the playing field means stripping charter schools of their perceived advantages. The same sort of cries of “unfair, unfair” have also prompted some legislators to spend way too much time fretting over the perceived imbalance in state football and basketball playoffs. Instead of pouring on restrictions and requirements to make the charters resemble public schools, why not try relaxing or eliminating some of the binding mandates constricting public schools? Has anyone ever shown that the proliferation of administrators and the mountains of statistics collected and reports filed produce a commensurate increase in student performance? That question reaches back thirty years or more.

Plenty of taxpayers likely wonder why school districts are so reluctant to explore sharing classroom services. What during the pandemic failed to impress on administrators the need to explore creative and economical approaches to instruction that help address student performance? As the current uproar over issues ranging from masking requirements to curriculum, parents across the state are tired of getting superior and smug dismissals of their concerns. This lack of trust has been building for a very long time. Not all the complainers have school-aged children, but it would not be surprising to see more families shopping for alternatives to public schools in the months ahead.

In their unrelenting castigation of charters, school administrators contend allegiance to the public interest. This tends to strike a lot of the public as temporary convenience, for they see how school boards regularly slough off or close down hard questions about their own budgets and performance measures, hold secret meetings in contravention of Sunshine Law requirements, and fight tooth and nail against releasing records the public has every right to see. Yes, there are many areas where educators know more than parents and rightfully have the power to decide. There is no education structure if every decision large and small is put to referendum. But that does not mean their judgment is never clouded by their overdone sense of authority. And as commentator William Safire was fond of reminding, the right to do something does not automatically mean that doing it is right.

This piece started with a quiz. The general test question is: What is the consensus definition of educational success and how do we effectively achieve it? Our inability to agree on that sure plays into long-running disputes over where and how education takes place. There is a significant wildcard in this discussion. The ongoing litigation over the school funding formula could result in a landmark ruling that overwhelms the charter disagreement and requires a drastic reconstruction of the education edifice. Pick any formula, and it is no guarantee of better student outcomes or higher parental satisfaction. Ruling out a future for charters is extremely unwise.

The most important test is not where education takes place, but choosing the methods and creating the environment that prove most conducive to student learning. It may be the public school, a private school, a religious school, a charter school, or home schooling. This is not a recruiting contest for students, nor is it an exercise in holding families hostage. Families and students have all sorts of challenges and preferences, and a menu of choices gives hope for making a good choice.

If Governor Wolf were serious about using his last year in office to burnish his legacy, this would be an excellent place to broker a peace treaty and set the terms of engagement moving forward. He has never demonstrated any interest or capacity in flexibility, but there is always hope for late-arriving inspiration, I suppose. It is certainly within the capacity of legislators to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table and find the middle ground for coexistence, if nothing else. For the many Pennsylvanians who count themselves in the political center or hold moderate views on issues, this strikes as the sensible and responsible way for state government to proceed. When deadlock persists, the only education anyone receives is in political theater.

David A. Atkinson is an Associate of the Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy.

Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy.