Just a few months after Pennsylvania approved its charter school law, a trailblazing Pittsburgh Public educator stood in front of the school board on a November night in 1997.
Helen Faison urged board members to approve the charter for the Urban Academy, a school that would operate independently from the district. It would remain public with open enrollment and the public school district would pay for students to attend it.
Faison was the former interim superintendent of the public district. She was the first female and first African-American principal. That night, she told the board that the district’s schools weren’t meeting the needs of its minority students.
“Pass this proposal with the expectation that it can and will deliver,” she told the board.
The charter for what is now the Urban Academy was approved with two others – Manchester Academic Charter on the North Side and Urban Pathways in Downtown.
Urban Academy, located in East Liberty, integrates African culture into its curriculum. The school opened on two floors of a Point Park University building in the fall of 1998, just five years after a Pittsburgh group filed a racial discrimination complaint against the district citing inequities between white and black students including academic achievement and discipline. A 2016 report commissioned by the public school district found that some of those inequities still persist.
“It was always to underscore that we believed that our kids could do even more,” said Esther Bush, CEO of the Urban League, the organization which started the charter school. “There was not always an opportunity that that was being shown and supported by traditional public schools.”
Faison died two years ago. Bush said she was confident about her vision for the school, but relied on well-respected Faison to push the board.
Many charter schools across the country started for the same reasons as the Urban Academy. The first charter in the U.S. was organized by teachers in Minnesota in 1992 with the promise of academic achievement without bureaucratic control. They were meant to be spaces for innovation.
Charter schools are public schools funded with tax dollars, but operate independently from the school district. That means the elected school board does not have oversight over the charter schools. The schools do have to report to the state, but aren’t held to the same standards in many ways.
But mostly, charter advocates tout that they give choice to families who otherwise wouldn’t have one. They say they give families who can’t afford private school, a quality alternative to what many call failing public schools.
Jessie Ramey, co-founder of a coalition called Great Public Schools and a professor at Chatham University, argues that choice in public services is not an effective model.
“We love the idea of choice, it’s very American,” she said. “But it’s really not the right framework when you’re looking at our public goods.”
Some charter schools say they aren’t the best fit for all students, making the case that students flourish in different environments.
Many charters have a guiding focus – the Urban Academy integrates African culture, some schools are arts centered and the newest charter to open in Pittsburgh focuses on teaching students with reading disabilities. And Urban Pathways, one of the three original charters, emphasizes having future goals and college preparedness.
Ramey said the United States, though, has a long-standing belief that as a common good, all children should be educated.
“One of the things charter schools are doing is using this choice model arguing that it ought to be a family’s choice," she said. "And that is a systemic problem that I would argue, and many scholars have argued, that looking at our schools as simply choice makes parents into consumers and takes away our shared obligation as citizens to support public education."
Supporters and critics of charter schools agree on a few things: schools should be focused on academic achievement and student growth.
After two decades, they’re still divided on how best to do that. But, proponents and opponents are not monolithic. They’re not divided down party lines. There’s a difference between free market believers who oppose regulation and those who say they want options not determined by their zip code and advocate for regulation and accountability.
Most agree that after two decades, the law needs to be reformed and parties need to find solutions to persisting problems including funding and accountability.