How school districts are strong-arming charter schools

Each year around this time a handful of new charter schools are begrudgingly approved by their local school districts. Last week the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published a story about a new performing arts charter school approved by the East Allegheny School District that caught my attention. What I found intriguing was the support that the local district showed the charter.

I found East Allegheny’s support for Westinghouse Arts Academy Charter School refreshing…that is, until I read the specifics of the charter agreement and realized why the district is counting this as a win.

“In what some charter school law experts called an “unusual” compromise, the charter school agreed to cap the number of students it takes from East Allegheny at 10. Instead, the school will recruit arts students from other school districts across Allegheny County and beyond.”

As the article states, capping a charter schools enrollment is not illegal, but it undermines the intent of the Charter School Law, which was enacted to provide options to students and families trapped in an educational environment that is failing to meet their needs.

Ira Weiss, the solicitor for Pittsburgh Public Schools as well as several other area districts, boasts that he often tries to impose enrollment caps when negotiating a charter contract. Weiss goes on to explain that charter schools, like Westinghouse Arts Academy, “would much rather have the approval than fight about the number of students that can come from East Allegheny.”

Which to me sounds like strong-arming, especially when you consider Weiss’ motives: “Charter schools and school districts can rack up sizable legal fees during the months-long appeals process to the state, which almost always rules in favor of the charter school…” Legal fees that charter operators trying to get up off the ground often can’t afford.

It’s unfortunate that charter schools feel compelled to accept an agreement that limits the number of students they can enroll. And to make matters worse, charter school leaders feel it is necessary to defend their very right to exist.

The narrative in the media that charter schools suck money from school districts has become so prevalent that charter operators, like Amy Heathcott, Westinghouse Arts Academy’s acting principal, are apologizing for being a “burden” on the local districts!

Public school choice is a tenant of PA’s Public School Code, and charter school personnel and the families they serve should never feel the need to apologize.

More importantly, the “burden” of charter schools on local districts is not as harmful as districts would have you believe. It is true that for every student who leaves a district school and attends a charter, the district must pass along funds to the charter that would have been allocated to that child’s education. But the charter only receives around 70-80 cents on the dollar compared to traditional public schools because the district is able to withhold certain funds.

Now you may be thinking, “well one student leaving a district for a charter may not cause much distress but what if 50 leave, or 100?” And sure, having 10 percent of the students in a district’s catchment area leave for a charter school would require the traditional public schools to do some restructuring; but the real concern isn’t how will the district survive, but why are students fleeing the districts in the first place and how can we fix it?

Jessica is the Public Affairs Manager at PennCAN.


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