It’s a shame Pa. chose to become a Wild West of charter schools

The state of Pennsylvania just got caught cooking the books.

Which books? Well, this little scam didn’t have to do with dollars or deficits.

It had to do with test scores.

The scores emerging from the state’s charter schools, to be precise. As reported by Martha Woodall in The Inquirer, the Corbett administration – a big charter backer – fiddled with how it evaluated charters to make the picture look rosier.

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The federal government slapped the state’s wrist and told it to go back to the old way. In the revised picture, only 28 percent of charters met targets for annual yearly progress in academic performance, compared to 50 percent statewide for traditional schools.

That’s not the fairest comparison, though, because charters tend to cluster in urban areas where traditional schools struggle. In Philly, charters outperformed traditional schools by 29 percent to 13 percent.

Good for them and good to know, but 29 percent is hardly cause for confetti and a balloon drop.

Charters are public schools (a point many people, both for and opposed, forget) that are run independently from school districts.

They are a good idea, a timely experiment – but one that unfortunately has run amok in Pennsylvania.

And some charter advocates have no one to blame but themselves.

The problem, as it so often is these days in public policy, is ideology.

The idea of charters emerged from teachers and parents who felt they could do a better job for kids if they could start anew, without having to bow to encrusted bureaucratic rules or deal with embedded attitudes soured by years of frustration.

But the charter concept was seized upon early on by those who hated public schools simply because they were government-run and, in the north, unionized. For them, it was less about helping kids stuck in bad schools than it was about furthering an anti-government agenda.  It was about, all together now, “ending the state-run monopoly on education.”

No rules, more flops

It’s one thing to observe that publics schools might work better with fewer layers of regulation. It’s a different, and less useful thing, to claim that schools thrive best with NO regulation.

But that ideologues’ stance is what ruled the day when Pennsylvania’s charter initiative got started in the 1990s under Gov. Tom Ridge. As a result, oversight is weak.

And, predictably, charters in Pennsylvania have become a Wild West giving free rein to quick-buck artists, politicians seeking patronage pits, fringe theorists, and well-meaning bumblers.

Some charters are superb, models to be emulated. Some are disasters. A number have led to indictments.

Without question, unions and some school boards have shown unyielding animosity to charters.

But ideologues have used that resistance as an excuse to shield charters from accountability.  The ideologues act as the though the mere fact that charters exist and enroll students is success enough.  Don’t bother them with irksome facts about fraudulent spending or weak academic results.

This silly dance on the test scores is but the latest example.

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