Pennsylvania’s Contentious Charter School Fight

CREDIT: MATT ROURKE, AP
CREDIT: MATT ROURKE, AP

On Sunday, the Pennsylvania Senate passed a bill allowing a state-run district, the Achievement School District, to take control of low-performing public schools. The bill would require that the lowest performing schools would make huge changes in three years by converting to charter schools or contracting out work. The legislation is influenced by efforts in Tennessee, where a state-run district, with the same name, has the ability to convert low-performing schools to charters. The bill has been controversial among some education advocates, who argue that these bills are an effort to privatize education or deprioritize spending on public schools.

State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D), who may run against Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R), has been of the most vocal critics of the legislation. He has argued that smaller class sizes, more time in the classroom, such as a Saturday class or longer school year, and services such as counseling for disadvantaged students who have obstacles to educational success, is a more proven strategy for improving public schools.

On Friday, Hughes offered a few amendments to the bill, but only one amendment passed.

“These failing schools have been underfunded for years and now we want to use unproven measures to experiment on students,” Hughes said Sunday.

Senate Bill 6 is similar to legislation in Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin and Louisiana. In Texas, the state legislature is considering a bill that would create an Opportunity School District for low-performing public schools. The schools’ performance would have to be low for two consecutive years to be considered. The bill, which is now in the public education committee, would allow public schools to be converted into charter schools. Public school advocates in Milwaukee protested a Wisconsin bill that would allow Milwaukee Public Schools to be operated by charter schools or private schools.

Charter schools and their student outcomes vary greatly from school to school, making it difficult to debate charter schools and their merits as a group on a national level. Catherine Brown, vice president of education policy at the Center for American Progress said that although charter schools should not be treated as a complete cure for what isn’t working at traditional public schools, they can help students make significant progress. She referred to the case of Lawrence school system in Massachusetts, which was taken under state control and improved under a mix of charter schools, traditional public schools and a school run by a union. In this case, Jeff Riley, the receiver, or “school czar” worked closely with teachers unions.

“Charters are not a panacea. Chronic failure and dramatic success are occurring today all over the country within different governance structures,” said Catherine Brown, vice president of education policy at the Center for American Progress. “But the combination of a comprehensive and aggressive approach coupled with significant resources can result in good schools regardless of the context.”

Tennessee’s state-run Achievement School District, created in 2010 after receiving Race to the Top money, oversees the lowest performing 5 percent of public schools. The majority of those schools are run by charter school organizations. Tennessee students have made big gains in test scores, with high school scores gaining in every tested subject area and grade level. More than 54 percent of students are performing at or above grade level in Algebra II compared to less than one third of students in 2011.