Before Pennsylvania Applies for 500 Million Dollars to Expand Charters, It Needs to Update Its Current Charter Law

The budget recently released by this administration proposes $500 million in funding for the Charter Schools Program (CSP). The CSP is a federal program that promotes and supports new charter schools and encourages the expansion and replication of existing charters that are deemed high quality. This is fantastic…except when states don’t hold themselves accountable to ensure outcomes.

We know that Black, Latino, and poor families have less access to quality schools than affluent parents – this includes teachers, principals, and other educators. We must recognize that all families should have readily accessible schools for their kids. Parents should be able to choose the schools that fit the needs of their children – not the school mandated because of a zip code. Millions of students across the country – including in Pennsylvania- are on charter school waitlists.

But, there also needs to be real choice – choice that is married to accountability. In 1997, when Pennsylvania joined the ranks of states offering more choice for families, the goals were to improve pupil learning, to increase learning opportunities for all pupils, to provide parents and pupils with expanded choices, and to hold these new charter schools accountable for meeting measurable academic standards and provide the school with a method to establish accountability systems.

While there are several things that need to be changed about the current charter law, nothing is more important than more state oversight to monitor students’ achievement levels in our charter schools (and all schools).

However, it is not clear how the state holds charter schools accountable for student outcomes. While financial solvency is important, it should not be the sole issue that warrants accountability from the state.

There needs to be more clarity in accountability. The state conveniently punted accountability for charters to the districts in which they reside, as if they don’t care to be bothered with the oversight of the educations of hundreds of thousands of black, brown, and poor children across the state.

And, while the district has criteria for reauthorization, school district schools aren’t held to the same standard. If the charter reauthorization guidelines implemented by our district were applied to neighborhood schools, most would be shuttered.

There is no clearer example of this than the performance of cyber charters. Many of them are absolutely horrific. And, the state does little to nothing to hold them accountable.

Pennsylvania should have clear targets that parents, students, school leadership, and the community at large can use to determine what is being promised and delivered by all charters.

If the state was clearer about what these expectations should be, it could hold all schools accountable – cyber charters, brick-and-mortar charters, as well as traditional schools. And, so could we.

Read a version of this article and other opinions about how to strengthen Pennsylvania’s charter laws on Philly.com. 
What do you think?

About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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