How Charter Schools Are Damaging Public Education In Erie, PA

Presque Isle lighthouse: one more thing in Erie that’s far more beautiful than you imagined.Getty

Erie has come a long way since the days that visitors would travel to the beaches just to be appalled by the dead fish on shore, the days when Western Pennsylvanians called it “The Mistake on the Lake.” The waterfront is now pristine and beautiful, the city now boasting great theaters, hotels and recreation. But public education is still struggling.

Just two and a half years ago, the previous superintendent of the district was asking his board to consider closing all of Erie’s public high schools and just farming the students out to surrounding districts. The move may have been a play for attention, but it grew out of real problems.

Erie suffers severely from issues felt across Pennsylvania. The state is near the bottom of US states in its support for local districts (generally around 36% of school money comes from the state). That means that local districts must supply the bulk of district finances. The ability of local districts to come up with money varies wildly from place to place, which is why Pennsylvania has had the greatest gap between rich and poor districts in the nation. Governor Tom Wolf entered office announcing his intention to fix that, but so far progress has been minimal. In the meantime, Erie is not exactly a rich district, and it has gotten poorer as charter schools (both brick and cyber) have popped up in the area, moving more and more money away from the public schools.

Charter school advocates have long argued that competition will unlock excellence and general awesomeness. The plight of Erie’s public schools gives us a hint about how that actually works.

Yesterday’s the Erie Times-News ran a piece by Ed Palatella looking at the possible fate of one Erie charter– the Erie Rise Leadership Academy Charter School. The K-8 school of over 400 students has ranked consistently low in its test scores (last year found only 6.9% of the students scoring proficient or advanced on Pennsylvania’s big standardized test). The Erie School District will hold hearings to decide whether or not to pull the plug; that plug-pulling almost certainly would come with court challenges and appeals, so the district has to weigh many factors.

The current superintendent, Brian Polito, is not hostile to charters, but he can’t ignore them. Last year Erie lost $23.5 million to charter schools, and in the face of financial and enrollment losses, it has closed or consolidated numerous schools. In Pennsylvania, a regular education student is worth around $10,000 to a district while a special education student is worth $20,000 (gaming that difference in funding by enrolling students with low-cost special needs can help a charter bring in a truckload of revenue).