The movement started in Minnesota with the opening of City Academy back on September 7, 1992. Today, more than 2 million students attend some 5,600 charter schools scattered across 41 states. We’ve come a long way since those early start-up days and, right now, folks all over the country are celebrating National School Choice Week, which runs from January 17 to February 2.

And that’s all well and good, but, as they say, the devil is in the details.

Pennsylvania alone now boasts more than 165 charters schools, and they spend on average $13,411 per student as opposed to the national average of $10,000. Moreover, it costs, on average, $10,145 to educate students at one of our 16 cyber schools—far higher than the $6,500 national average—this with no buildings to maintain and no busing expenses.

Meanwhile, our public charter schools, funded with taxpayer dollars, are paid by districts at their own per-student spending rate. The result: 500 districts, 500 different rates. Here in Montgomery County, for instance, cyber charters receive $16,915 per student vs. $6,752 for a student from Schuylkill County. Fixing the payment formula, says Auditor General Jack Wagner, could save taxpayers as much as $365 million a year!

No wonder then that Representative James Roebuck introduced House Bill 2661 last year in an attempt to alter how charter schools get their funding while also limiting their allowable funding reserves to be keeping with the 8% to 12% allowed for traditional public schools. Currently, one charter’s reserve fund balance is 95% of its annual funding!

And now comes news that House Republicans have put forward new legislation, the Charter and Cyber Charter Funding Reform Package, intended to “propose fair and responsible changes to charter school funding while preserving parental options for our Commonwealth’s students.” Critics, however, are already coming to the fore, as is the case with school activist Susan Spicks who said, “Under this proposal cyber charter schools would still be allowed to charge tuition that is far more than it costs them to educate a child. For-profit charter school management companies would still be able to accrue massive profits and use millions of taxpayer dollars to pay for political lobbying and advertising.”

Stay tuned.

Then there’s the matter of performance—and it matters a lot. A Stanford University study tells the tale with its conclusion that students in Pennsylvania charter schools, on average, make smaller gains than if they attend their traditional public school. Here’s why:

  • In reading, 38% of brick and mortar charter schools did significantly worse.
  • In reading, 35% of brick and mortar charter schools did significantly better.
  • In math, 42% of brick and mortar charter schools did significantly worse.
  • In math, 27% of brick and mortar charter schools did significantly better.
  • 100% of the state’s cyber charter schools did significantly worse.

Performance outcomes looked rosier, however, when–and without federal approval–Pennsylvania Education Secretary Ronald Tomalis allowed charter schools to be treated as districts instead of individual schools for evaluation purposes. The result: about 59% of charters made Annual Yearly Progress, or AYP, vs. only about 50% of our traditional public schools. Proponents applauded–just not for long.

That’s because the U.S. Department of Education ultimately rejected this more lenient way of assessing charter school performance and ordered the commonwealth to hold charters to the same standard as traditional public schools. The newly calculated result on the 2012 exam: just 43% of charters made AYP—and not one cyber school.

Nevertheless and despite such numbers and the costs borne by districts, hence taxpayers, the push for more charter schools is still on across the country and here in Montgomery County, too. In fact, three now hope to locate within the North Penn School District alone:

  1. The Souderton Charter School Collaborative is an award-winning charter which plans to replicate its success within North Penn’s boundaries if approved. It would serve students in kindergarten through 8th grade.
  2. Montgomery Flex Charter School’s founder Tim Sager is making a second pitch for board approval, this time without an online component. Its focus would be on career guidance and be open to students in grades 7 through 12.
  3. New Generations Charter School is the brainchild of two teachers, Naomi Rodriguez who teaches math at the Perkiomen Valley School District and Kim Siar, a veteran Norristown Area School District teacher. New Generations would offer small kindergarten through 5th grade classes.

Now comes decision time, and nothing is certain. As Paul Edelman noted at the December board meeting, “The financial loss to the district would have to be made up somewhere. Charter schools aren’t on the same playing field and shouldn’t be paid for by taxpayers.”

Meanwhile, the Springfield Township School District’s review committee recently recommended against approving the Whole Life Charter School’s application, stating that its most glaring weakness was its curriculum.

At the same time, Montco’s school districts are making some moves of their own:

  • Phoenixville has approved adding a full-time kindergarten program to buck the trend to charters. Half-day kindergarten would also be offered. The district’s Community Budget Advisory Committee estimates that if just three charter students were to return or three chose to stay with the district, more than $501,000 could be saved over 12 years. Currently 365 Phoenixville students attend a charter—either brick and mortar or cyber—costing the district about $4.5 million per year.
  • In 2011, North Penn partnered with Brandywine Virtual Academy to offer cyber schooling to its students in grades 6 through 12 as an alternative to cyber charters. The hope is that the district’s students already enrolled in cyber charters will switch to Brandywine, with access to all district services and personnel, aka blended learning, if so desired. Last year, the district paid $904,000 to send students to for-profit cyber charters.
  • Nine Montco districts have already signed on with Brandywine: Abington, Hatboro-Horsham, Methacton, North Penn, Perkiomen Valley, Phoenixville, Pottsgrove, Souderton, and Upper Merion.

And now comes word that Education Secretary Ron Tomalis has denied the applications of 8 cyber charter schools for the coming year saying, “The proposals submitted by the applicant lack adequate evidence and sufficient information of how prospective students would be offered quality academic programs. In addition, the financial plans presented call into question each applicant’s ability to maintain a long-term, viable educational program for the benefit of Pennsylvania students.”

So, are charter schools the cure-all for our education woes as some say? You decide as we celebrate National School Choice Week.