The Pennsylvania Charter School Law (PCSL) was approved in 1997 with the goal of education reform. These independently operated, publicly-funded schools provide parents with an affordable alternative to traditional public school for their children. Specialized curricula allow children the opportunity to try a different form of education, focusing on a particular subject such as science or art. However, charter schools have brought about some unforeseen changes to the education system over the past 20 years and some critics are calling for comprehensive reform of the law.
As of the 2015-2016 school year, there were 175 charter schools in Pennsylvania, including 14 cyber charter schools – schools that use the internet or other electronic means to deliver curricula to students. Since the 2002 update to the PCSL allowing for the creation of cyber charter schools, there have not been any major updates to the legislation. The Pennsylvania Auditor General criticizes the law and the manner in which some charter schools spend money, such as purchasing laptops for students who are then not required to return them.
He also points out that school districts without brick and mortar charter schools are paying thousands of dollars to enroll students in cyber charter schools. To combat high tuition rates for special education students, he suggests implementing a tiered payment system that takes into account the severity of students’ disabilities.
The President of the Education Policy and Leadership Center agrees that reform is necessary. State contributions of over $200 million annually were eliminated in 2011, burdening certain school districts that are responsible for paying for tuition and transportation costs and leading to a lack of appropriate oversight.
Supporters of the PCSL highlight the importance of providing opportunities for low-income and special needs students. A former Pittsburgh Public Schools teacher says that the school districts have shown overall improvement since 1997. Some believe that charter schools will prompt public school competition, leading to higher performance overall.
Proponents of the PCSL agree with critics that the law should be updated to meet ever-changing demands. Late last year, the Pennsylvania governor announced that a new charter school division would be created within the Pennsylvania Department of Education to provide resources and guidance to charter schools that will hopefully lead to better monitoring of school operations and academic performance. According to the President of the Education Policy and Leadership Center, many people agree that the system needs to be fixed. However, there is no consensus on how to go about doing it.
The Charter Schools staff at the Pennsylvania Department of Education reports that new resources designed to support charter schools will be released in 2018. Such resources include technical assistance toolkits containing nationally recognized best practices and referenceable answers to frequently asked questions for educators, administrators and parents.