Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s decision in August to impose new rules on the state’s charter schools drew praise from those who feel the charter system has an unfair advantage over traditional schools. But it also attracted condemnation from school choice supporters who saw the move as an attack on a system that has provided alternatives to failing public schools.
On Monday, with the Legislature on the verge of returning to Harrisburg for the fall session, school choice advocates led by the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools gathered at the Capitol to make sure that Wolf, a Democrat, knows exactly how disappointed they were by his August executive order.
The sizable rally, moderated by Ana Meyers, executive director of the coalition, was the culmination of a letter-writing campaign by parents, students, administrators and educators who want the governor to know that they’re unhappy with his moves.
“On behalf of the approximately 140,000 students who have chosen to be educated in a Pennsylvania public charter school and their families, we're proudly submitting today, more than 1,700 letters,” Meyers said. “The messages we are delivering are just a fraction of the thousands of citizens who believe that educational options should be available to every family regardless of their address, or economic status.”
The rally featured comments from Jacob Sachleben, an 11th-grade student at PA Virtual Charter School, who said that thanks to school choice, he was able to pursue his educational aspirations without having to match his advancements to those of his classmates.
“I did look into enrolling into the local school district at one time, and I had the opportunity to shadow an honor student for a day,” Sachleben said. “I found the classes he was taking were classes that I had completed two years prior. When we inquired about it, the administration of the school stated that they would not be able to properly challenge me academically.”
Sachleben noted, too, that a significant chunk of the funding provided by the state and by local property taxes to pay for his education is retained by the local school district, rather than going to the charter school.
“On average, PA virtual and other schools like it receive only 78 percent of the educational funding,” Sachleben said. “That does vary from district to district however. Specifically, the local school district of which I'm resident of only sends 68 percent of my educational funding to PA Virtual. That means they keep 32 percent of my funding, and I received zero benefit from it.”
Markida Ross, whose son attends Mastery Charter School in Philadelphia, noted that many of the charter schools in the city are housed in former traditional public schools that had closed down over the years. In some cases, she said, they were among the worst schools in the city.
“They were downsizing the schools, and all of a sudden the schools were being taken out of the neighborhood,” Ross said. “So Mastery came in to keep our children in the neighborhood. Before the Mastery turnaround, Cleveland was one of the lowest performing schools in all of Philadelphia. Now, Mastery Cleveland is one of the best elementary schools in North Philadelphia.”
Ross said that the assembled crowd had a message for the governor – if he showed support for school choice, then school choice advocates would be happy to work with him.
“If your goal is to do everything you can do to improve all public schools, charter and district schools, to ensure that every child has a great school to choose, then we are with you,” she said. “But if your goal is to attack charter schools that have changed the course of our children's lives, and thousands of others, and to take away the choices that all families like mine finally have, then we will push back.”