Philly.com Commentary: Take a look at what's working in Philly charter schools

By Laurada Byers

Philadelphia's public pools are closing this week and back-to-school sales are everywhere, but the first day of school is still a ways off for the 140,000 students in the School District of Philadelphia.

Students in many of the city's public charter schools, however, are already in class. In fact, some - such as KIPP and Global Leadership Academy - opened in early August. This is because charter schools have more autonomy than traditional public schools over their academic calendar as well as their curriculum, staffing, and budget decisions.

That autonomy - specifically the freedom to spend dollars differently than traditional district schools - is the focus of a new report from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA), an advocacy group of traditional school districts, criticizing charter school spending.

Charter schools do spend money differently than traditional district-run schools. And that's the whole point! What traditional district-run schools have been doing isn't working when it comes to serving students from low-income backgrounds in Philadelphia.

For example, some public charter schools invest more in administrative positions like instructional coaches who work to help teachers improve or in college advisers who help students from low-income backgrounds overcome the challenges of poverty. Still others invest in new technology like personalized learning software or one-to-one laptop initiatives. Instead of the "one size fits all" model that traditional districts have employed for decades, the promise of public charter schools is to spur innovation and hold schools accountable to parents and for academic results.

And it's working. The PSBA's report ignores this key fact: In Philadelphia, public charter schools are dramatically outperforming district-run schools. According to the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes at Stanford University, the typical student in a Philadelphia public charter school receives the equivalent of 40 days of extra learning in both math and reading each year, compared with their peers in traditional district schools. Added up over kindergarten through 12th grade that is nearly three years of additional learning. It's no surprise that of the eight K-8 schools recognized for outstanding achievement on the Philadelphia District's School Progress Report, all but one were public charter schools.

Rather than criticizing charters for spending money differently, why isn't the PSBA's report asking why districts aren't following the charter example?

The report goes on to regurgitate many of the tired arguments we hear from charter school critics:

It notes that, in 2014-2015, charter schools accounted for 5.4 percent of all public school spending in Pennsylvania. But, it fails to mention that, in the same year, charter school students accounted for 7.6 percent of the state's student population.

It notes that charter school funding since the 2007-2008 school year has outpaced charter school enrollment growth. But, it fails to mention that during the same period, revenue to traditional districts increased by almost 20 percent while losing student population.

It fails to note that public charter schools in Pennsylvania get less than 80 cents on the dollar for every student compared with their traditional district-run peers.

Public charter schools are doing more with less, in part by being more creative in how they solve the same challenges that traditional district schools face. How shortsighted to criticize them for getting better results with taxpayer dollars.

Those results are the reason there are more than 22,000 families on charter school waiting lists in Philadelphia alone. They're the reason that, according to a 2015 Pew report, 58 percent of Philadelphians believe charter schools "improve education options and keep middle-class families in the city."

As the school year starts, let's leave the divisive and unhelpful rhetoric behind and instead take the opportunity to see what is working in our highest-quality public charters. And you don't have to wait to see. Philadelphia's public charter schools are already hard at work.

Read the full article here.

Laurada Byers is board chair of Philadelphia Charters for Excellence.