While many states have had charter schools for 20 years or longer, Alabama did not pass a charter law until 2015 and only two were in operation in the 2018-19 school year.
Minnesota was the first state to pass a charter law in 1991. California followed in 1992. Pennsylvania got a charter law in 1997.
However, many states are now starting to look at how charters have performed, how they have impacted traditional public schools and how laws should be changed to get more accountability.
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf is one of the voices calling for change. Here are recent comments he made on charter schools, as reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday pledged to overhaul Pennsylvania’s charter-school policy to increase accountability for the schools, which have long been a source of controversy.
At a news conference at a school in Allentown, Wolf said he would direct the state Department of Education to change regulations for charters, including tightening ethics standards, charging fees for services provided by the state, and allowing school districts to limit enrollment at charters that don’t provide a “high-quality” education.
Wolf also said he would push to revise Pennsylvania’s charter law, which he called “one of the most fiscally irresponsible laws in the nation.”
“I want to create a level playing field for all taxpayer-funded public schools,” Wolf said, and “increase the accountability and quality of the charter-school system.”
It’s the latest effort in Pennsylvania to reshape the charter-school movement, which has grown even as the divisions over it have deepened. More than 143,000 students attended Pennsylvania charter schools last year, up from 79,000 students nearly a decade earlier.
Describing charter schools as increasingly costly to school districts, and in some cases poorly performing, Wolf said the current system “isn’t good for anyone.”
“We have been talking about charter-school reform since I became governor,” Wolf said. “And my actions today are the result of the fact that we haven’t really done anything. So I’m going to do something, and hopefully this will be the start of a conversation.”
Joyce Wilkerson, president of the Philadelphia school board, on Tuesday commended the governor for “stepping up to the plate on this critical issue,” saying state charter law “is outdated and repeatedly ranked as one of the worst in the country.”
“Quite frankly, I find it encouraging,” Rep. Curt Sonney (R., Erie), who chairs the House Education Committee, said Tuesday. “I agree it’s long overdue.”
Sonney said he planned to introduce cyber charter reform legislation, though he did not know whether House leadership would support it.
In the Senate, Appropriations Committee Chairman Pat Browne (R., Lehigh) called for a special session on charter-school funding, saying the issue had “reached a crisis point.”
Pennsylvania’s charter-school funding formula, passed into law in 1997, was “the best available platform at that time,” Browne said in a statement. “However, now it has created an irreconcilable financial conflict between charter and traditional schools which mandates both in-depth review and responsible legislative and executive action to address.”
Under the charter law, school districts fund charter schools based on enrollment. Charter schools have become one of the biggest expenses for school districts, along with pension contributions and special education services.
Charter schools have a large presence in cities like Philadelphia, where about one-third, or 70,000 of the city’s 200,000 public school students attend charters.
The issue isn’t limited to brick-and-mortar charters in urban areas. Districts across the state pay for students to attend cyber charter schools — and at the same rate as brick-and-mortar charters. Pennsylvania has one of the country’s largest cyber-charter school sectors, and researchers have repeatedly flagged the schools’ poor performance on tests.
Wolf on Tuesday cited a June report by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which described the performance of the state’s cyber charters as “overwhelmingly negative.”