Some charter school scores worse than feared
Jan 27, 2013 (The Evening Sun - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Pennsylvania charter schools were created to offer students an alternative to public-school education, but they continue to lag behind public schools on achievement measures.
And according to a recalculation of scores for the 2011-12 school year released Tuesday, progress at many of the state's charter schools could be even worse than originally feared.
According to those recalculations of charter school achievement levels conducted by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, just 30 percent of the 144 brick-and-mortar charter schools and none of the 12 cyber-charter schools made Adequate Yearly Progress during the 2011-12 school year. By comparison, 50.5 percent of traditional public schools achieved this goal.
Especially at a time when many school boards are having trouble balancing their budgets, administrators are frustrated by their districts' financial obligation to fund charter schools that they say are not providing an adequate education for students. Payments to charter schools cost the taxpayers in local districts millions of dollars each year.
On the other hand, officials at charter schools say they are educating students, many with learning disabilities, with less money per student than the districts. When students come to a cyber-school already behind academically, it is not surprising they do not test as proficient on state tests, they say.
Last fall, the Pennsylvania Department of Education
calculated charter schools' Adequate Yearly Progress as though they were districts, not individual schools, without first receiving permission from the U.S. Department of Education.
This method allowed more charter schools to achieve Adequate Yearly Progress, according to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. That's because students enrolled in a charter school were divided into three sections based on grade level, roughly mimicking a school district's elementary, middle and high school.
If one of the three sections made Adequate Yearly Progress in math or reading, the entire charter school did so. Using the old scores, 53 percent of brick-and-mortar charter schools and 8 percent of cyber-charter schools made Adequate Yearly Progress.
The school boards association submitted a formal letter of objection to the U.S. Department of Education and in November, the state was ordered to recalculate the 2011-12 school year results for charter schools.
The new method, recalculated in January, treats each cyber-charter school as an individual school. For a traditional public school to make Adequate Yearly Progress, a percentage of the overall student body must score proficient or above on state math and reading tests.
Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, 78 percent of students in any given school were required to be proficient in math and 81 percent proficient in reading for the 2011-12 school year. In order for a school to make Adequate Yearly Progress, its students must meet these requirements as well as benchmarks for attendance and graduation rates.
Now, the majority of cyber-charter schools, 67 percent, are listed as Corrective Action II schools, a school's lowest possible status based on its Adequate Yearly Progress. Thirteen percent of brick and mortar charter schools and 12.7 percent of traditional schools are also at Corrective Action II.
Schools at this level are required to develop an improvement plan, receive technical assistance and fund supplemental educational services like tutoring. These schools also face governance consequences such as reconstruction, chartering and privatization if they do not improve, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education website.
Maurice Flurie, CEO of the cyber-charter Commonwealth Connections Academy, said 20 percent of the students enrolled in his school, a Corrective Action II school, have a diagnosed learning disability that requires an Individualized Education Program, a type of special education program.
Flurie said some students come to the school with a learning disability that has not been identified and a large number are several years behind academically.
"I don't think anyone should be shocked that our students aren't making AYP," he said.
Local education officials say they are not surprised by the new results.
"They confirm what most of us already know," said Al Moyer, superintendent of the Hanover Public School District.
Despite the continued poor performance of charters, public school officials like Moyer say they believe there is currently a strong political agenda in Harrisburg that is unfavorable for public schools.
"I think the governor is out to make public education look bad," said Barbara Rupp, superintendent of South Western School District.
Rupp and members of the district's school board discussed the new results at their meeting Wednesday night. Board President Dale Myers said the amount the district pays for charter schools -- about $1.1 million annually -- is ridiculous, especially when their students are not performing well academically.
Myers asked the district's business administrator to write a letter to local legislators asking how they should answer constituents who ask why they have to pay so much to support schools with such low performance.
Still, while there are issues with the costs and academic quality of charter schools, the districts do not have the right to deny students that type of education, said Rebecca Harbaugh, superintendent of Conewago Valley School District.
"At this point in time we have no recourse," said Harbaugh, whose district will spend $1.2 million to educate the 92 students enrolled in cyber-charter schools for next year. "We have to continue to write the check."
This cost-per-student is determined by taking a district's budget and dividing it by the total number of students.
Many administrators say this method is especially unfair when it comes to cyber-charter schools because it costs significantly less to educate a student online than it does at a traditional public school.
Since the classes for a cyber-charter are all online, the school does not have to pay for things like building maintenance, electricity and heat.
"Their costs are not the costs we have," Rupp said.
But Flurie said his cyber-charter is given only 60-80 percent of what a school district would spend on educating a student if he or she were in a traditional school.
"Depending on the district, it could be as low as 50 percent," he said.
Every school district fills out a "363 form," which is used to calculate the amount the district must pay for each student enrolled in a charter school, Flurie said. He acknowledges that it's an odd system and that there are some discrepancies in the formula.
"I understand the districts' angst," Flurie said.
But Larry Redding, superintendent of Gettysburg Area School District, said the difference is much closer.
He said the Gettysburg district spends about $11,500 per year to educate each high-school student , compared to $10,691.60 to send one student to a charter or cyber-charter school.
A few years ago, the state reimbursed districts for about 30 percent of charter costs, but that is no longer the case, Moyer said. The state does not contribute any additional funds for students who opt for a charter school education.
"It's a major burden on the taxpayers," he said.
State lawmakers acknowledged charter costs are an issue on Friday when House republicans proposed legislation to change the current funding laws.
Their package includes a 50 percent reduction on cyber-charter costs for school districts as well as funding changes for the extracurricular activities and district pupil services offered to cyber students, according to a press release.
But until something is done, cash-strapped districts will have to continue to budget more money for charter schools.
South Western's $1.1 million is $150,000 more than was budgeted for the current year, said Jeff Mummert, the district's business manager.
Hanover Public School District went from 89 students enrolled in charters this school year to 122 students for 2013-14, Moyer said, and costs are expected to go up from $850,000 to $1.2 million.
Moyer said if the district did not have to fund charter education, it would not have to raise taxes.
Some administrators, including Moyer, contact each student in their district who drops out of public school to enroll in a charter school.
Moyer has found that some Hanover students are trying to avoid state mandates that schools are required to enforce, such as attendance-related fines. Instead of paying the fines, parents would rather send their kids to a charter school.
Other Hanover families have cited transportation issues as one of the reasons their child switched to a charter school, Moyer said. Hanover Public School District does not provide transportation for traditional public-school students, but the district is required to pay for students enrolled in a brick and mortar charter school, like Vida, a charter school in Gettysburg, to get to and from the building, he said.
To retain more students, some districts have created their own cyber schools.
Bermudian Springs School District, for example, started its own cyber in 2010 to provide students the option of online learning at a smaller cost to the district. The district spends roughly $4,200 for every student enrolled in its Eagle Academy, said Shane Hotchkiss, the district's superintendent, compared to $8,200 for the typical student.
But Rupp said an online education is not for everyone.
"Most students don't learn that way unless they're highly motivated," she said.
Some brick and mortar charter schools, on the other hand, do as well or better than their public-school counterparts.
Vida, the Gettysburg charter school, made Adequate Yearly Progress under both the old and new calculations for 2011-12.
Vida, which opened in 2010, offers a language immersion program in which students learn math, science and social studies in both English and Spanish. "We offer a different approach to education," said school director April Yetsko. "We've had a wonderful success with our students."
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