Hard-Hit Districts Push Back against Charter Schools

Article excerpt

Western Pennsylvania school districts that are losing students and money to charter schools are fighting back.

The Penn Hills school board this week approved spending $3,500 a month for two years of advertising on TV and the Internet. Thirty- second ads will promote the Penn Hills Senior High School that opened last month.

The neighboring Woodland Hills school board awarded a $13,000 contract on Wednesday to develop infomercials to air on public access television.

Districts traditionally have not advertised schools, but their charter-school counterparts have, attracting a growing number of students.

Woodland Hills will pay $13.9 million -- nearly 17 percent of its annual budget -- to charter schools this year to educate more than 1,150 children who live in the district, the most students among 49 suburban districts the Tribune-Review surveyed. About 22 percent of eligible students there go to charter schools. Penn Hills is sending 787 students to charter schools at a cost of $8.1 million.

"It's cost us personnel. It's cost us programs," said Tara Reis, a Woodland Hills board member and parent. "When you see these kinds of numbers, it's staggering. That's why we don't have reading specialists or an after-school tutoring program or pre-K programs anymore."

Since the Legislature approved charter schools in 1997, 175 have opened statewide. Sixteen are online only. The charters are privately operated but funded by tuition payments from districts.

Supporters say they offer a better education than traditional public schools.

"I feel like a charter school gives us public education with a private-school feel," said Ivelisse Torres of Penn Hills, whose daughter, Chloe, attends first grade at Imagine Penn Hills Charter School of Entrepreneurship, which opened in 2012.

Districts such as Woodland Hills are fighting reputations for low test scores and violence.

"The parent perspective is that the environment (in the school district) isn't conducive for the child," said Bob Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools. "There's violence in the school, not a focus on learning."

Reis said Woodland Hills needs to highlight that the district and high school met minimum test score levels. Its infomercials would include a five-minute piece outlining positive things happening in the district; two one-minute spots sharing student experiences and alumni perspectives; and several 30-second ads themed "Woodland Hills . …