This month’s advocacy spotlight is on School Choice in Pennsylvania.
With school out and summer in full swing, many families are taking the time to re-evaluate their children’s education. Some parents, concerned with the current state of public schools, are considering alternative schools for their children. With cyber schools, charter schools, magnet schools, religious and academically driven private schools, and home-schooling options available, the opportunities seem endless. In this month’s advocacy spotlight article, our focus will be on exploring the current state of alternative schooling in the U.S., and more specifically, in our home state.
The Pennsylvania Public School Code of 1949 establishes the laws and provisions applicable to both public and non-public schools. In section 1327, it states:
“It is the policy of the Commonwealth to preserve the primary right and the obligation of the parent or parents, or person or persons in loco parentis to a child, to choose the education and training for such child.”
With this foundation, alternative schools have grown tremendously in the United States since the 1970’s, when they first began to pick up speed. While schooling is mandatory for all U.S. citizens of compulsory age, the code defines and elaborates on other viable alternatives to public education. Researchers Lange and Sletten claim almost all alternative schools maintain a small size and emphasize one-on-one interaction between teachers and students, create a supportive environment, allow opportunities for student success relevant to the students’ futures, and allow flexibility in structure and emphasis on student decision-making. (To read more of Lange and Sletten’s work and to learn about the history of alternative education, click here.)
Options for Alternative Education
The recently amended Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 defines each of the alternatives to public school, and as long as children attend one of these options, they are meeting the federal requirement for education. Below is a list of alternative school options, with details about funding, status, and trends pertaining to each one.
- Status: A charter school is a public school
- Tuition: Charter schools are free to attend (they are publicly funded)
- Location: Charter schools are located throughout the state of Pennsylvania. Here is the list of all charter and cyber charter school locations in PA for the 2015-2016 school year (the addresses listed belong to the administrative office of each school)
- Entrance requirements: There are no special entrance requirements to enroll in a charter school
- Regulation: Charter schools are granted authority by an individual school district or a state department of education. These entities help create and enforce the terms listed in the school’s charter, in order to maintain accountability
- Purpose: Charter schools were created to provide students with a non-traditional education based on curriculum that was created to meet the specific needs of the demographic group of students attending. Charter schools attempt to build off of and improve upon the basis laid by public schools. Cyber charter schools were created for this same purpose, but in the context of a partly or completely virtual setting. Students can receive the same specialized education without having the requirement of attendance in a brick-and-mortar setting
- Focus: Charter schools often specialize in a certain area of study or focus on meeting the needs of a specific demographic group of students
To get involved with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, or to learn more, click here
- Status: A magnet school is a public school
- Tuition: Magnet schools are free to attend (they are publicly funded)
- Location: Magnet schools are located throughout the country but typically tend to be located in urban environments. Click here to see the amount of magnet schools in the country in recent years.
- Entrance requirements: Many magnet schools use a random computer-based lottery system for admission. Some schools use assessment data or parent/teacher recommendations to determine student eligibility for enrollment, some have an allotted number of students that can be enrolled per neighborhood, and some magnet schools do not have any special entrance requirements at all.
- Regulation: Magnet schools are regulated by an individual school district or a consortium of districts
- Purpose: Magnet schools were created to offer students diverse, specific learning opportunities not found within the realm of public schools. Magnet schools specifically are built off of the five pillars.
- Focus: Magnet schools typically have a“hands on” approach and specialize in performance/inquiry based learning. Each school has its own theme (example: STEM)
To get involved with Magnet Schools of America, click here
- Status: A private school is a non-public school
- Tuition: Almost all private schools require families to pay tuition for schooling each year. Some schools have financial aid or scholarships available to help families afford school.
- Location: Private schools are located throughout the country and across PA. Click here to see a list of PA private schools and their locations.
- Entrance requirements: Most private schools use a rigorous admissions process to determine student enrollment eligibility. Standardized test scores, along with a myriad of other academic factors, are used for this process.
- Regulation: Private schools are regulated by a board of directors or trustees and must receive accreditation from state entities.
- Purpose: Private schools were created to give students an educational experience that could not be found within the realm of public schools. About 63% of private schools are religiously affiliated, and the remaining schools usually have a succinct purpose (ex: gender-specific schools). Many private schools specialize in serving students with special needs as well.
- Focus: Private schools usually have curricula, activities, and school policies related to its purpose. Education is individualized, with small teacher/class ratios. While private schools must follow national and state rules and standards, administration and teachers are able to choose how to teach their specialized curricula.
To get involved with the National Association of Independent Schools, click here.
- Status: Homeschool is essentially a private school
- Tuition: Families who homeschool their children must assume the financial responsibilities of learning materials and curriculum if they are not selected from the public school district in which the household resides
- Location: Homeschooling is prevalent in households throughout the U.S.
- Entrance requirements: There are no special entrance requirements for students to be homeschooled. However, the parent/guardian/tutor must be a properly qualified private tutor and the parent/guardian must act as the supervisor of the student’s education program.
- Regulation: The department of education regulates homeschooling procedures. Students must pass selected standardized tests and his or her work (and homeschool procedures) will be evaluated annually by a teacher, administrator, or school psychologist.
- Purpose: While families choose to homeschool children for a variety of factors homeschooling was designed to give families and students more control over the content and direction of their education.
- Focus: Homeschooling allows students to have ultimate individualized instruction. Students are able to move at their own pace and have more freedom to pursue their interests.
To get involved with a homeschool support group in PA, click here
Funding for Alternative Education in PA
In recent years, the government has approved re-allocation of federal money to support non-public, alternative education and the families who decide to partake in this. In 2001, the Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program (EITC) gained overwhelming support from the legislature and was signed into law by former PA Governor Tom Ridge. Through this initiative, tax credits are offered to eligible businesses contributing to organizations that provide low and middle-income families with private school and prekindergarten scholarships or to organizations that support innovative school improvement programs. In 2012, the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program (OITC) was passed, allowing business contributions to fund tuition assistance in the form of scholarships to eligible students residing within the boundaries of a low-achieving school. With these scholarships, students can attend a higher-achieving public school outside of their district or nonpublic school.
The EITC program offers business tax credits up to 75% (and in some cases, even 90%) of contributions made per taxable year. Children are eligible to apply for scholarships if their household income falls beneath $75,000 per year (plus $15,000 per additional child). The scholarship organizations are responsible for determining the quantity and amount of scholarships given each year. The OSTC program offers the same tax credit contribution levels to businesses and maintains the same household income requirements, but eligible students must be coming from a low-achieving school to receive a scholarship. A low-achieving school is considered a public school ranking in the bottom 15% of their designation based on Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) scores. In the 2014-2015 school year, 49,813 scholarships were awarded in Pennsylvania alone. To see statistics for other states and programs, click here.
While there are Education Savings Accounts, school vouchers, and individual tax credits and deductions offered for families in the U.S., Pennsylvania has not yet adopted any of these funding measures. To learn more about funding for alternative schooling, please visit here and to receive emails about school choice updates, sign up here.
Due to recent legislation and the success of the programs listed above, the school choice movement is gaining traction in the education reform agenda in the U.S. To receive updates about the movement from REACH, a Pennsylvania coalition dedicated to educating citizens about school choice options, click here.
Written by: Christie Stelljes