Recently, the East Allegheny School District broke ground on its first charter school.
At the ceremony, Superintendent Don Mac Fann told the audience that the school – which will operate in the former Westinghouse Elementary in Wilmerding – would provide unique opportunities for students.
“It was a tough decision for this board," he said. "We looked at this on many different occasions, looked at every aspect with it but we cooperated. I think that’s what makes this historic."
Mac Fanns’s support of the charter is unusual. But, he noted, the way the district has cooperated with the incoming charter school could set a precedent for future relationships between traditional districts and charters.
Charter schools are publicly funded schools that operate independently from a public district with its own leadership and curriculum. Pennsylvania’s charter school law was adopted 20 years ago by legislators who said the public school system needed to be radically reformed. Since then, the relationship between operators of charters and traditional public schools has been contentious. If a public school board approves a charter, the money the district gets from the state for a student follows the child to the charter. That tension can lead to rejected applications. The charter can appeal that decision and then the state takes over. The state has a track record of approving most appeals.
Mac Fann said East Allegheny, a district of about 1,600 students, didn’t want to go through that process. Instead, the board worked for months to write a memorandum of understanding with the charter.
“Rather than an absolute no, we said ‘let’s look at what we can do for one another first and foremost for our kids,'" he said.
The agreement, penned in February, states that only 10 East Allegheny students can attend the school that will have space for 750 students when it opens in the fall. One point of the MOU says the charter can’t replicate programs like marching band that are offered by the East Allegheny District. But, more students from the public district will have the opportunity to take classes at the arts-focused school.
“Once that cooperation takes hold, I can see the students at East Allegheny school district being incorporated in programs like multimedia that chances are East Allegheny School District could never afford to purchase,” Mac Fann said.
Westinghouse Arts Academy principal Amy Heathcott said because of the enrollment cap, the charter is drawing students from other nearby districts.
“We’re not opening to make a statement about the public education that’s already being offered. We’re not here to say there’s a problem, we’re here to offer something unique and different for a student who wants to take advantage of that,” she said.
Charters were created in Pennsylvania to offer something different, whether that be a focused curriculum, like Westinghouse will offer, or with innovative teaching methods. While the law was created to give charters flexibility to try new things, they aren’t held to the same standards.
Ron Sofo, CEO of City Charter High School in downtown Pittsburgh said that’s problematic.
“If you can’t prove that as a charter you’re doing some things significantly different tied to significantly improved student outcomes, we don’t need you,” he said. “We don’t need another elementary school just because.”
Sofo argues that charters are held to a higher standard because the schools can be closed for not performing.
“When’s the last time a Pittsburgh Public school closed for poor performance?” he said.
He supports a Pennsylvania House bill that would push for charters and neighborhood schools to operate under the same rules and create a commission to examine how charters are funded. Westinghouse Arts Academy, like all charters in the state, will receive funding from other school districts for students to attend the school. Heathcott said the renovation of the nearly 90-year-old school building will cost about $8 million. Some of that funding is coming from grants, but RPA Holdings, the company that purchased the buildings, said it will find outside funding for the rest, which could mean foundation support.
House bill 97 would also create a performance matrix developed by the state board and would ensure that charter school teachers would be evaluated in the same ways traditional public school teachers are.
In a separate bill, Democratic Senator Jim Brewster, of McKeesport, also wants address the relationship between charters and districts. Brewster says senate Bill 670 would redefine how local districts cooperate with a charter by requiring charter operators to report to the host district in person quarterly.
Only one of the handful of charter reform bills is out of either education committee. Legislators say change is coming, but it’s going to take time. Several bills, including Brewster’s legislation, are iterations of bills that were held up in previous sessions.