Charter Schools and the “Right to Know”

The Pennsylvania Legislature passed the Charter School Act 12 years ago. A charter school is a nonreligious public school that operates independently of the local school district. Charter schools are not state-regulated as are traditional schools. Instead, charter schools operate with significant freedom and autonomy.

The “charter” for each school is a contract that details the school’s programs, goals, and structure. Charter schools are held accountable for academic results and fiscal management. Their students must participate in mandatory state and federal student testing. The Charter School Act requires that individuals or groups that want to start a charter school first must apply to the local school board. If the school board rejects the charter application, the applicant may appeal to a state Charter Appeals Board in Harrisburg. Approved charter schools receive public funding, largely from the local school district. Students attend without paying any tuition. A charter school must admit students by lottery if it cannot accommodate all student applicants.

Currently, Pennsylvania’s charter schools total approximately 115 and serve roughly 55,000 students. Many are cyber schools-schools whose students study from home, using the Internet to connect to teachers and educational materials. One Pennsylvania charter school, in Philadelphia, is an all male school that focuses on traditional academic programs, with an emphasis on learning Latin. Another is the Pennsylvania Maritime Academy, which focuses on marine science and maritime business while providing a traditional academic program for 5th to 12th graders. Several Pennsylvania charter schools focus on math and science curricula. Several other charter schools are dedicated to the arts, including the performing arts.

Pennsylvania’s charter schools have not been without controversy. Some have seriously underperformed, with their students falling significantly behind local public school student standards on state testing. Some have experienced financial crises, poor leadership, and high turnover in staff and students. Others have excelled and have achieved precisely the main goal of the Charter School Act: innovative public education.

The charter and financial records of charter schools are public records as a result of a recent lawsuit. A Pennsylvania man sued under the Pennsylvania Right to Know Act for access to the financial and contractual records of a local charter school. The school had been established by an incorporated charter group. Once the incorporated group received a charter, it signed a contract with a professional charter school management group to run the school.

The man requested annual financial statements, an auditor’s report, and copies of the contracts signed by the charter group and the professional management group. Generally, the Right to Know Act gives citizens the broad right to have access to public records. But the charter group refused to provide any information, claiming that it was not a government agency but, instead, was a private group that qualified for government funding. The case went all the way up to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which decided soundly that all charter schools are public agencies for the purposes of the Right to Know Act. If you are interested in or concerned about a Pennsylvania charter school, you have the right of access to the school’s financial and charter documents.

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