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Educators and lawmakers discuss charter school reform

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Charter schools have been at the center of often contentious debate in Pennsylvania since the 1997 Charter School Law was passed. Earlier this week, legislators from across the state and charter school officials discussed proposed reforms to the law, during a hearing in Doylestown.

Adam Schott, special assistant to Secretary of Education Pedro A. Rivera, outlined what he called the “underlying issues” of accountability, equity and quality surrounding charter schools in the state.

“We believe strongly that by attending to these factors, we can substantially improve student outcomes; enhance fairness within the broader system of public education; and provide education leaders – district and charter alike – with a more rational and predictable space for the core work of educating kids,” said Schott.

Superintendents from Pennridge, Central Bucks and Quakertown school districts, and Palisades School District’s business administrator addressed the hearing, expressing concerns about the loss of funding resulting from charter schools, among other issues.

“I don’t want to get into charter school bashing,” said John Kopicki, Central Bucks’ superintendent. However, he added, the thinking that it’s free, is wrong. “It’s not free; it’s a burden,” he told the lawmakers. “I’m not anti any good charter school … I’m not afraid of competition, I just want fairness.”

Other public school officials echoed Kopicki’s sentiments, saying their districts suffer from the diversion of money to charter schools when a student opts to leave public school.

Drew Bishop, Palisades business administrator, said his district “supports meaningful funding reform,” adding that such reform should be based on “actual costs.”

Among the Wolf administration’s proposals, are clarifying tuition rate calculations and improving fairness in special education funding, a hotly debated issue among educators from all types of schools.

Maurice “Reese” Flurie, president and CEO of Commonwealth Charter Academy Charter School, said the “myths” around charter schools need to be dispelled. Families don’t choose charter schools because they’re online, they choose them for reasons including safety, bullying, medical reasons and “broken relationships with their schools.

“We need to be cautious about (policies) that force families back into schools where relationships are broken,” Flurie told the legislators.

He also stressed that the law requires public cyber charter schools to make their educational programs accessible to students with disabilities. Seventeen of his students require $75,000 each to meet their needs, said Flurie. If public schools had to be ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant, it would add significantly to their costs, he added.

Wendy Ormsby, director of organizational development and founder of Souderton Charter School Collaborative, said, the 230-student school has a record of producing high-performing students and is proud of its track record of innovation. In 2013, the school was recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School, said Ormsby.

Throughout the afternoon-long hearing, public and charter school officials presented differing views on how best to educate children and how to fairly fund all schools.

Rep. Joseph C. Hohenstein, (D-177) suggested a different way to evaluate the complex and controversial matter.

“We keep asking ‘how do we slice up a small pie,’ “ instead, he suggested, let’s ask, “how should we make a second pie?”

Flurie noted, getting away from a “blanket model” that divides cyber, charter and public schools would be helpful.

Regardless, said Schott, change in charter school funding, accountability and equity is coming.

“The emerging consensus around charter reform reflects the fact that there’s an inherent contradiction between a law premised on innovation and a law that’s mostly remained unchanged a quarter century later.

“Together,” said the special assistant to the secretary of education, “We can begin the hard work of ensuring efficiency and fairness for all public schools.”


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