‘Research for Action’ weighs in on university authorizer debate for PA charter schools

    Should the Pennsylvania Senate approve a measure that would allow colleges and universities to authorize new charter schools?

    On Monday, the nonprofit Research for Action released a policy note detailing how the idea has played out in the 12 states that have embraced the notion.

    There’s not enough evidence to suggest that allowing institutes of higher education (IHE) to authorize charters will result in greater student performance, according to the note.

    “The research evidence does not support this idea at this time,” said John Sludden, RFA’s senior policy assistant. “More information is needed.”

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    Under Pennsylvania law, traditional public school districts are the only entity that can authorize and oversee the bricks-and-mortar charter schools within their district boundaries. The state Department of Education authorizes and oversees the state’s cyber-charter schools.

    Some see this system of authorization as conflict of interest.

    “In most cases the district sees the charter schools as competitors, and they then have absolute control over whether those competitors exist or whether they don’t,” said Robert Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, in a December interview.

    Critics of the status quo say that colleges and universities could do a better job of overseeing charters than the often resource-strapped school districts themselves.

    Although proponents of IHE authorization have trumpeted a 2013 CREDO study as proof of the connection between multiple authorizers and student performance, the RFA policy note dismisses this logic.

    “While a 2013 CREDO study has been cited as evidence that higher education authorizers contribute to improved charter school outcomes, the study did not investigate this question,” the report said.

    A 2009 CREDO study found that, in states with multiple authorizers, “there is a significant negative impact on student academic growth.” Given a choice of authorizers, CREDO researchers said that charter school applicants “are strategic in their choice of authorizer and look for the option that is ‘easiest’ on charters.”

    ‘Open for public debate’

    As written, the pending legislation (S.B. 1085), “would make for a significantly different landscape” for Pennsylvania’s traditional public school districts and charter schools, Sludden said.

    Of the approximately 1,000 charter authorizers nationwide, the brief finds that fewer than 5 percent are institutes of higher education.

    Of the states that allow it, Michigan has the most IHE authorizers with 11.

    The pending Pennsylvania legislation would enable 100 institutes of higher education to become authorizers -– including 15 community colleges and dozens with religious affiliations.

    “Senate Bill 1085 would establish the potential for more charter school authorizers in a single Pennsylvania school district than exist in most states,” according to the policy note.

    The bill would allow any college or university with at least 2,000 students to apply to become an authorizer. If accepted, it could authorize an unlimited number of charter schools within its home district.

    If the college or university offers a bachelor’s degree in education, it could authorize an unlimited number of charters anywhere in its home county.

    If the college or university offers a doctorate degree in education, it could authorize an unlimited number of charters anywhere in the state.  With this provision in place, the bill would potentially allow, for instance, the University of Pittsburgh to authorize an unlimited number of charter schools in Philadelphia.

    As an general example, the RFA report said, as many as 15 different IHE authorizers could potentially create new charters in the Radnor Township School District.

    State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, D-Philadelphia, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said the legislation is a work in progress that “nobody’s wedded to” for a “tested practice that’s evolving.”

    Of the University of Pittsburgh example, Williams said further deliberations would “probably” result in language changes that would bar the university from creating charter schools in Philadelphia.

    “I’m not here to dispute what they’re saying. I’m more suggesting that common sense would suggest that by having a community of higher education institutions involved in areas [of the state] that are struggling, there should be a benefit,” said Williams. “What that’s going to look like, how it’s going to be designed, is open for public debate.”

    The Senate has not scheduled a vote on the legislation. 



    RFA Policy Note on SB1085 Jan 2014 (PDF) RFA Policy Note on SB1085 Jan 2014 (Text)

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