EDITORIAL: Reform charter school laws

York Dispatch

The results of a state audit of York City's Helen Thackston Charter School paint a picture of education in disarray and highlight the urgent need to reform Pennsylvania's charter school laws.

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale — who once represented York City in the state House — summed it up this way:

"In the Thackston charter school's case, there is no way to account for every dollar, or to know if the school operated as intended, because of a breakdown of internal controls," DePasquale said. "The lack of documentation makes it nearly impossible to draw any sound conclusion."

The routine review, which looked at Thackston's operations from 2010 to 2013, found a general lack of accountability and transparency, an insufficient number of certified teachers, and a failure to keep proper financial and health records.

It also exposed potential ethics violation, concerns about reimbursements and double-billing for tuition reimbursements from local school districts, according to DePasquale.

We understand charter schools give parents options when it comes to their children's education, and in general we support school choice — as long as charter schools are held to the same standards as traditional schools.

In York City, parents choose charter schools because the district is struggling. But the district then struggles even more as it loses state funding that instead goes to charter school tuition.

It would be one thing if charter schools could justify starving home districts by saying, "Look how wisely we're spending every tax dollar — and look at the wonderful results we're seeing."

But in Thackston's case, academic performance is actually worse than most of the city's traditional schools.

According to the state Department of Education's School Performance Profile, the charter school's score dropped from 57.5 percent in 2012-13 to 45.8 percent in 2013-14, ranking it lower than six of the seven public schools in the city of York, DePasquale said.

Thackston officials have said they're working on implementing changes recommended in the audit, but in our opinion it never should have gotten this bad in the first place — and the Legislature shares the blame for that.

"Our audit shows not only a clear need for changes within this charter school, but for legislative reforms of the Charter School Laws and the Department of Education's regulations, guidelines and policies," DePasquale said.

That's something we've been saying for years — when York City students first began heading to charters in droves, after the long battle to close the former New Hope Academy (for reasons similar to those noted in the Thackston audit), and when the state-appointed chief recovery officer last year recommended changing all York City schools to charters.

Yes, parents deserve the right to school choice — but taxpayers surely deserve better oversight of those choices.