A warning to my conservative friends and followers: I’m going to praise a government program. It works because it’s customer-focused and accountable. And best of all, it’s focused on our children.
We’re in Pennsylvania’s 25th year of charter schools. They are succeeding far beyond the hopes of Governor Ridge and the bipartisan legislators who enacted Act 22 of 1997. These are public schools with individual “charters” to which parents may choose to send their children. Each school’s charter has to be reapproved every five years.
Today, there are over 170,000 students in Pennsylvanian’s 179 Charter Schools — 165 “brick and mortar” and fourteen “cyber” schools. Tragically, there are over 50,000 students on charter school waiting lists. During the Covid-era lockdowns and mandates, cyber schools doubled in population — parents wanted experts who knew how to remotely teach their children.
Some context: Pennsylvania’s largest school district — Philadelphia — has 118,000 students. The second largest — Pittsburgh — has 25,000. So, there are 45 percent more students in charter schools than in the Philadelphia district and nearly twice as many children on wait-lists than there are students in Pittsburgh’s.
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Parents register their child for a charter school. When “too many” children are registered, by law, the school holds a lottery. If you want to see how much this means to parents, go to a charter school lottery. See and hear the reactions from parents — both those who “win” and those who “lose.” Those are images you won’t soon forget.
We need more good charter schools for our children.
Charter school goals were multi-faceted: to rescue children trapped in failing or unsafe schools by allowing their parents to have alternatives; to offer more challenging curricula for advanced students; to foster creativity with the creation of subject-focused schools — science, music, ethnic-culture; and to allow educators to test different approaches to teaching.
The hope was that students would excel, that these schools would also be laboratories for creativity, and that all other educators could learn from them, too. And, down the road, even more good schools would be created. Mission accomplished.
Not only do the numbers show overwhelming success, the creative goals have been met, too. There are charter schools in communities where traditional public schools are failing students, as well as schools dedicated to subjects and culture. New and creative teaching methods have been created or expanded in charter schools. These include team-teaching across disciplines such as having history and English teachers co-teaching, combining students in creative classrooms with students from more than one grade, creating individualized plans for each student, and holding the teacher and student accountable.
And it’s important to remember there is “customer” accountability with parents in charge. At any time, parents can withdraw their children from a charter school and enroll them in the local public school, a cyber charter school, or a non-public school with tuition if they can afford it. There is also financial accountability as each school budget is a public document, presented to the charter school’s local public school district.
Education is supposed to be the great equalizer, the ladder that allows children to reach their potential. Charter schools are working, changing lives.
Taxpayers win, too. Teachers are being creative and innovative — and helping other teachers and educators. Parents are empowered and their children are in safe learning environments. Every child who attends a school that works is a win for everyone.
Charter schools are public schools, yet, they only receive about 70 cents on the dollar of what their public school district spends. The local district gets to keep the remaining money — for any “administrative” costs and to help the local district adjust to the “transitional phase” of not having the children in its district.
Of course, not every charter school has been a success, and not every parent and student has been satisfied. But there is accountability and transparency. Schools that were mismanaged, unsafe or failing students have been reformed or closed — as they should be.
There are opponents of charter schools in the educational establishment. They complain that charter schools have “too much” educational and bureaucratic freedom. Stunningly, you would think the establishment would lobby to get the same freedom as charters, yet they actually lobby to impose red tape and bureaucracy onto charter schools instead. And they have powerful unions and lobbyists behind them.
Education is supposed to be the great equalizer, the ladder that allows children to reach their potential. Charter schools are working, changing lives. This is a government program that is working — and ought to be expanded.
All the more reason that charter schools — and more importantly, the students — need us to tell their stories and fight for their future. The children will benefit, and so will communities across Pennsylvania.
Guy Ciarrocchi is based in Paoli, where he writes and counsels elected officials and public-policy advocates — and coaches softball in his 24th season. Contact him at email@example.com