Pennsylvania slapped by U.S. Ed Department over charter schools

While Pennsylvania considers adding eight more cyber charter schools to its roster of 16, it is smarting from a rebuke by the U.S. Department of Education, which slapped down its plan to evaluate brick and mortar charters by a method that is easier than for traditional schools. Confused?

Let’s start at the beginning. I recently wrote a post that said:

How is this for fair? Charter schools in Pennsylvania are now being assessed by easier rules than are traditional public schools when it comes to determining whether No Child Left Behind mandates have been met.

Well it turns out that the U.S. Department of Education apparently didn’t think it was fair either — or, more to the point, didn’t think it was legal — because it has told Pennsylvania officials that charter schools have to be evaluated by the same criteria as traditional public schools.

Pennsylvania officials announced earlier this year that they were changing the rules for assessing whether a charter school had met No Child Left Behind’s Adequate Yearly Progress mandate. Instead of treating the charter schools like traditional public schools, they were going to use the same method of assessment for individual charter schools as they do for entire school districts. That matters because the threshold for success for districts is lower than for individual schools, and, as a result, the new method would make charter schools look better for NCLB purposes than they really were. According to the Pennsylvania School Board Association, 44 of 77 charter schools recently labeled as having met the AYP requirements for 2011-12 actually didn’t if compared with the rules that traditional public schools had to meet. Some of the 44 charters even saw declines in proficiency percentages.

The state officials didn’t bother to ask the federal Department of Education for permission, and now the feds have said they can’t do what they want. “I cannot approve this … because it’s not aligned with the statute and regulations,” U.S. Assistant Education Secretary Deborah Delisle wrote in a letter to the state, according to the Pocono Record.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania is starting hearings Monday on applications to open eight more cyber charter schools — there are already 16 — which critics say will break state law if approved.

According to the nonprofit Education Law Center, officials are required by state law to annually review cyber charter schools and strip any of their charters if students are not meeting mandated performance standards. It turns out that of the 12 cyber charters for which there are standardized test scores (four new ones opened this past fall), only one reached the NCLB Adequate Yearly Progress mandates for 2012, and only made it for 2011. Eight were in corrective action status.

The law center cites a 2011 study from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes which showed that Pennsylvania cyber charter students tended to have higher test scores when entering those schools but that every subgroup of students’ academic performance was lower when compared to the academic performance of the same subgroups in traditional charter schools. And reading and math standardized test scores for students in eight cyber charters in the study were far below those for their counterparts in traditional public schools.

Yet the reformers’ charter obsession marches on….

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

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Valerie Strauss · November 26, 2012

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