Editor's note: This letter is in response to a contributed piece written by David Lapp of the Education Law Center.
To The Legal:
I read your article published November 26 in The Legal titled "Charter School Reform Must Protect Vulnerable Students" with both interest and, ultimately, disappointment. While I commend your strong commitment to children and their education a passion we share there are several clear inaccuracies you cite regarding the effectiveness of cyber charter schools that require correction.
First, let me say that I'm proud that Pennsylvania has been on the forefront of education reform and innovation, and our role as a pioneer in the realm of cyber charter education is no exception, even inspiring other states to follow our lead. Michigan, Wisconsin, Louisiana and several others have increased the statewide caps on cyber charter enrollment in the last few years. Citing Pennsylvania's successes, some state legislators are looking to push cyber charters further. We are not, however, the national leader in overall charter enrollment. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Ohio, Michigan, Florida, Texas, Arizona and California all have larger charter populations than Pennsylvania. California, in fact, has about 10 times the charter enrollment as the commonwealth.
Second, you exaggerate how complicated the application process is for charter schools in Philadelphia, citing the plural "25-page application forms." In reality, the School District of Philadelphia's report only had one out of 25 applications that were that long. In fact, only eight of the 25 charters have applications that surpassed 10 pages; the norm is two to five pages.
Lastly, your assessment of the demographics and aptitudes of charter students in Philadelphia is simply unfounded. A recent Pew study from 2010 actually found more racial diversity in Philadelphia charters than the Philadelphia School District. Further, there are more economically disadvantaged students at charters (76 percent) than traditional public schools (67 percent). Additionally, there is almost an exact 50-50 split between male and female enrollment in charters. While the number of females does have a slight edge, this is only a recent phenomenon. Before 2007, there were slightly more males than females enrolled at roughly the same 50-50 split.
Perhaps most importantly, you incorrectly state that charter schools often pick and choose their students. Unlike magnet schools, which are public, district-operated schools that do screen applicants for aptitude, by law, charter schools cannot. Charters must accept all applicants on a first-come, first-served basis or, if the school receives more applicants than it has seats, through a blind lottery. Once students get into charter schools, they consistently test at proficient or advanced levels on the PSSAs in greater numbers than traditional public schools (according to the same Pew study, with the numbers breaking down to 5 percent higher in reading and 8 percent higher in math).
If public schools selecting students based on aptitude is wrong, why do you not criticize the magnet school system? While some of Philadelphia's magnet schools are among the best schools in the commonwealth, the indisputable fact is that they take the most able students out of the neighborhood school system while leaving the other students behind. That is exactly what you wrongly accuse charters of doing, yet you don't criticize the magnet system. Philadelphia is essentially running a publicly financed, private school system through the magnet network. Why is that acceptable but charter schools giving neighborhood children a safe, quality education experience not acceptable?
I understand and share your concern regarding the education of our children in the commonwealth, all of our children. That's why I firmly believe in school choice, which broadens opportunities for children who may not have similar academic opportunities otherwise. Cyber charters are but one of a portfolio of options that should be available to that end.
Given our shared interests, I am sure we can and will be aligned as allies more often than not, but in this case, your argument posed more of a disservice in the fight for quality education for all.
Anthony H. Williams
State Senator, 8th District