U.S. says Pa. Education Department ‘acted prematurely’ in charter AYP change

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis "acted prematurely" in changing how to calculate adequate yearly progress for charter schools, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The rule change made it easier for some charters to make AYP.

But a federal spokesperson also said in an email that the change may ultimately be approved.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education "does not have the authority to apply this methodology … until [the federal Department of Education] has had an opportunity to review and approve its expanded application," according to the email from the federal department spokesperson. "The Department understands the pressures of time in getting these analyses done, reviewed and published, however, PDE acted prematurely."

But federal officials have yet to rule definitively on whether they will approve, ex post facto, Tomalis’ action, which was sought by charter proponents and has likely resulted in more charters making AYP this year than would have otherwise.

Tomalis said he made the change because charter schools in Pennsylvania are legally the equivalent of school districts, and so should have their AYP calculated under those rules, instead of under rules for individual schools, which are more strict. The state first applied for the change over the summer but had not heard back before releasing the 2012 test results.

The rules divide school districts into three grade spans — 3-5, 6-8 and 9-12 — and allow them to make AYP if one grade span reaches its goals. In contrast, individual schools must reach goals for all grades and demographic subgroups in order to make AYP.

The email, attributed to Deputy Press Secretary Daren Briscoe, added: "If charter schools are districts under state law, they are treated as districts in all circumstances. PDE would be in compliance by applying the district AYP procedure to charter schools if, under state law, the charter is authorized as a district." It added that the decision is still pending review by legal counsel.

In Pennsylvania, each charter is legally a separate local education agency, the equivalent of a school district.