Editor’s note: This letter is in response to a previous letter written by state Senator Anthony H. Williams.

To The Legal:

I am compelled to point out the numerous misrepresentations in state Senator Anthony H. Williams’ letter, “Cyber Charter Schools One of Many Options Available to Phila. Students,” published December 14 in response to my November 26 article, titled “Charter School Reform Must Protect Vulnerable Students.” Williams wrote his letter to “correct” the “several clear inaccuracies [I] cite regarding the effectiveness of cyber charter schools.” This is interesting, because my column contained no discussion, of any kind, about the effectiveness of any charter schools, cyber or brick-and-mortar.

My column was about access to charter schools for vulnerable student populations. It was about the hundreds of calls the Education Law Center receives from parents of students who experience illegal barriers to enrolling in many of the charter schools in Philadelphia and about other students who are unfairly expelled. It was about the need to address these barriers and exclusions in any legislative charter school reforms.

In an attempt to discredit my discussion of barriers, Williams misstates the very study he cites. The senator writes that the 2010 Pew study found “there are more economically disadvantaged students at charters (76 percent) than traditional public schools (67 percent).” The study actually concludes, on a number of occasions, the complete opposite, stating:

“Sixty-seven percent of charter school students are classified as economically disadvantaged; the figure is 76 percent for the district as a whole.”

The senator switched the numbers. The correct numbers in the Pew study are consistent with what was cited in my article.

The senator also misrepresents what the Pew study found regarding racial diversity in charter schools. I did not discuss racial demographics in my article. The truth is that racial stratification is a problem in all too many of Philadelphia’s public schools, both traditional and charter. The Pew study actually concludes that the racial demographics of overall charters and overall district schools are similar, but with slightly higher percentages of African-American students in charter schools and lower percentages of Asian-American and Latino students. As African-Americans are already the majority in both charter and district schools and Asian-Americans and Latinos are already in the minority, a slightly higher concentration of African-American students and lower concentration of Asian-American and Latino students in charters can hardly be characterized as “more racial diversity.”

Again, my column made no statements about charter school performance, which is a topic deserving of an entirely separate article. But the senator’s statements require some context. It is true that the Pew study found higher PSSA scores for charter school students as a whole. This is unsurprising, since, as I explained in my column, charters serve fewer impoverished students, fewer English language learners, fewer students with severe disabilities and fewer boys. But Williams neglects to include the very next line in the Pew study, which states, “On the 2009 SAT, however, students in charter high schools performed worse than their counterparts in district-run schools.”

Williams also failed to mention the results of the most comprehensive review of Pennsylvania charter school performance, conducted in April 2011 by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University. The CREDO study found that, overall, charter school performance in Pennsylvania lagged in growth compared to traditional public schools. With regard to cyber charter schools, for which Williams singles out Pennsylvania as a “pioneer,” the CREDO study found that, although students in cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania tended to have higher test scores when entering cyber charters, the academic performance of cyber charter school students was lower when compared to the academic performance of the students in brick-and-mortar charter schools. The results were even more dismal when cyber charters were compared to traditional public schools.

The CREDO study also found that in both reading and math, all eight cyber schools operating in Pennsylvania at the time performed significantly worse than their traditional public school counterparts. Devora Davis, the CREDO research manager, stated: “What we can say right now is that whatever [cyber charters are] doing in Pennsylvania is definitely not working and should not be replicated.”

Before entering the legal profession and joining the staff of the Education Law Center, I spent nine years of my professional life as a high school social-studies teacher in Philadelphia charter schools. I also proudly served on the board of another Philadelphia charter school. The point of my original article was not to attack charter school performance or effectiveness. As I said in my article, I believe there are many well-run charters that do an excellent job educating all students. But we cannot turn a blind eye toward the very real problem of many charters falling short of their legal obligation to serve our most vulnerable students. I know that Williams has fought his entire career to fight all forms of discrimination and it is my hope that he and our entire legislative leadership will, in any future charter school reforms, provide greater accountability to ensure that “school choice” means parents and students choosing schools, not schools choosing students.

David Lapp
Attorney, Education Law Center