Pennsylvania Governor Closes Cyber Charter School

Gov. Tom Wolf made that announcement about the impending closure of the Philadelphia-based charter school at a news conference where he discussed his plan to revamp Pennsylvania’s 22-year-old charter school law.

by Jan Murphy, The Patriot-News / October 2, 2019
Tom Wolf, Incumbent and Democratic candidate for Governor of Pennsylvania attends a student forum in Philadelphia, Pa., on Oct. 10, 2018. (Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto/Zuma Press/TNS) TNS

(TNS) — Pennsylvania’s lowest performing cyber charter school will shut down by the end of this year as part of an agreement it reached with the state Department of Education.

 Gov. Tom Wolf made that announcement about the impending closure of the Philadelphia-based Achieving Community Transformation Academy Charter School on Tuesday at a news conference in Altoona where he discussed his plan to revamp Pennsylvania’s 22-year-old charter school law.

“Pennsylvania’s charter school law is the worst in the nation and is failing students, teachers, school districts and taxpayers,” Wolf said in a news release. “There are high-quality charter schools, but some of them, especially some cyber charter schools, are underperforming. We must ensure that charter school students are getting a quality education they need and that charter schools are accountable to parents and taxpayers.”

The ACT Academy Charter School, one of 15 cyber charter schools in the state, enrolled 104 ninth- through 12th-grade students last school year, according to information on the education department’s website. Its most recently released state test scores were dismal with just 13.6% of its students at grade-level in English language arts/literature; 4.6% in mathematics/Algebra; and 4.6% in science/biology.

About the school’s forthcoming closure, Jessica Hickernell, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said, “It is unfortunate for the students who have chosen to attend ACT Academy that they have to find another educational option. These families made a choice to enroll in this school and now that choice is being taken from them.”

Wolf has made charter school reform a priority in the first year of his second-term of office in the wake of a Stanford University report released in June that found overwhelmingly negative results from the state’s cyber schools.

A reform his administration has already imposed is charging charter schools a fee to help settle funding disputes with school districts. It also intends to begin charging new cyber charter applicants $86,000 to offset the education department’s cost of reviewing their application. Wolf also has the department working on some new regulations to increase the accountability and transparency of charter schools. Comments about the proposed regulations can be submitted to: Office of the Secretary, 333 Market Street, 10th Floor, Harrisburg 17126.

Additionally, the governor is proposing legislation that would cap enrollment of low-performing cyber charters until performance improves, impose a moratorium on new cyber charter schools, subject charter management companies to the state’s Right to Know Law, and establish a new funding formula for charters.

Some of his proposed reforms have not been received well by the charter school community. They point out that the 140,000 students enrolled in the state’s 180 public charter schools chose to leave their assigned school district for any number of reasons. Further, they say charter schools educate just 7% of the state’s public school students and yet the governor’s focus rests only on the schools that families and students choose.

“Governor Wolf should seek accountability from all public schools, not just public charter schools,” said Ana Meyers, executive director of the charter school coalition." We believe that every school should be judged based on the same standards for education."

While Wolf points out that school districts spent $1.8 billion on charter school bills in 2017-18 and the bill continues to rise, Meyer said what he fails to say is that charter schools receive only about three-quarters of the amount that districts spend to educate their own students. She renewed her call for Wolf to visit more than the one charter school he has visited since becoming governor and meet the families who send their children to these independent public schools.

But Wolf’s argument is there is little public oversight over how charters spend their money and have no publicly elected school board overseeing them. He also said the rising cost of charter school bills is diverting money from the district’s own operation, which is contributing to the rise in property tax bills.

“My common sense plan preserves school choice while holding charters to the same standards as traditional neighborhood public schools, protects taxpayers, and strengthens education,” said Gov. Wolf. “We must ensure that all students get the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in life. It’s important to the future of all children and their communities.”

He was joined at his news conference by three school district superintendents who detailed the financial hardship that charter school bills are causing their operations.

Some of Wolf’s charter school reforms are folded into legislation that passed the state House of Representatives passed a series of bills, except for how they are funded, and sent the package to the Senate for consideration. The Senate, meanwhile, passed a bill that would establish a charter school funding commission tasked with crafting a formula to recommend to the General Assembly, which now awaits House action.

The charter school community has been supportive of the proposal to develop a fairer funding formula for charter schools as well as proposed reforms that the House passed. But what they don’t want to see are impediments that diminish the opportunity for families that seek a public school alternative to have one.

Meyers said: “Wolf’s treatment is unfair to charter school families, many of whom are minorities and disadvantaged, who are just seeking a better education and future for their child.”

©2019 The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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