Friday, November 4, 2011

PA Charter Schools and Democratic Accountability

The School District of Philadelphia has decided to close 9 schools in an attempt to reduce the excess capacity by 14,000 seats.  Since 2000, the District has lost over 50,000 students.  And since PA approved charter legislation in 1997, over 48,000 students have enrolled in charter schools.

There is a clear connection between the loss of students to charters and the disinvestment in traditional public education, i.e. the closing of schools.

But charter schools can co-exist with traditional public school districts, provided that the state-level charter legislation is more teacher-friendly.  By involving more teachers in democratic educational reform, we are more likely to benfit from their professionalism, creativity and expertise.

Charter legislation in Pennsylvania is presently not that teacher-friendly in that it marginalizes teachers (and local unions) from the innovative charter school process: teachers who work at the school can't serve on the board of a charter school. Nor can they be members of the local bargaining unit. These two provisions exclude two important groups that could actually sustain worthwhile educational reform.

It could get worse.

According the the Education Law Center, PA state Senate Bill 904 and House Bill 1348 are designed to change charter school legislation so that there is actually less democratic accountability: 10-year renewals rather than 5, conversion of any school to a charter, and a state-level commission to directly approve charter schools.

If we're gong to revise charter school legislation, we can do better:
  1. Charge the PA State Commission with explicitly helping LEAs, parents, teachers and unions study, modify and/or adopt effective innovations within the charter school networks.
  2. Modify the oversight of individual charters to require teacher representation. If the argument has been that teachers have had little influence over the direction of traditional public schools, then teachers should be able to effectively influence public education through charters, if necessary.
  3. Allow PA charter employees to opt-in to (or cooperate with) the membership of the local union's collective-bargaining unit. This will help the employees within a charter ensure due process. As for "seniority" that is associated with unions, charters should be explicitly permitted to retain site-based hiring (a provision that already exists within traditional public schools). Charters should also be required to design their budgets that do not penalize (or discourage) experienced teacher applicants due to their higher salary expectations.
  4. Allow/encourage local unions (or their partners) to open and supervise charter schools. If the argument is that the LEA and it's policies hinder teacher effectiveness, then local unions should be able to manage charters effectively while maintaining union membership within the LEA.
  5. Require that charter schools provide opportunities for teacher leadership through teacher-led professional development, peer evaluation, common planning time, and engagement-oriented (rather than compliance-oriented) administrative supervision.
  6. The legislation should also be explicit about using "multiple measures of teachers' effectiveness" in determining faculty retention, teacher salaries, etc. Assessing teachers' effectiveness on high-stakes standardized tests is an incomplete and ineffective strategy. The use of multiple measures to determine teachers' effectiveness is in alignment with position statements by the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers and the US Department of Education's Blueprint for Reform - Reauthorizing ESEA.
It's time for more democratic accountability -- in all aspects of educational reform.