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“REFORM” BILL A MAJOR SETBACK FOR PENNSYLVANIA’S CHARTER SCHOOLS

What was once billed as an effort to improve Pennsylvania’s modest charter school law has gone horribly off-track.

One anti-charter school bill, HB 618 passed the General Assembly earlier this month and now another anti-charter school bill, SB 1085, has been released from the education committee and is being discussed in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

There is little doubt that efforts to improve Pennsylvania’s charter school law are needed — the law is currently ranked 14th out of the nation’s 43 laws, earning a C grade. Both bills represent a major setback for Pennsylvania’s families and school children.

It is time to scrap these bad bills and try again.

Lawmakers initially sought to make major reforms that would create new authorizers of charter schools in the state, remove unnecessary obstacles to the operation and funding of charter schools, address some funding equity issues, and strengthen the accountability of all public schools. Worthy goals, all.

But rather than make the public education environment more conducive for the growth of high-performing, highly accountable public schools, this latest legislation sets in motion the destruction of every inch of progress families, school children, and educational innovators have made in the Keystone State in recent years.  SB 1085, for example, makes sweeping funding cuts with little regard for how different schools and students will be effected, adds considerable regulation even though existing ethics and education code already apply to charters, and ineffectively addresses the fundamental issue facing Pennsylvania’s charter sector – high quality authorizing and oversight.

There is consensus that significant improvement in Pennsylvania’s charter school law is needed and can be accomplished. SB 1085 fails to ensure accountability, foster the growth of charter schools, or properly address financial equity — admirable goals shared by parents, charter leaders, and reformist lawmakers alike.

Goal 1- Ensure Accountability and Foster Growth of Charter Schools. Pennsylvania’s charter school law is not lacking in public accountability, it is lacking in the existence of strong quality authorizers. Currently, only local school boards can authorize charter schools but many across the state have not proven they are up to the task. Because of a few bad apples, the public is demanding greater accountability. The research show that strong authorizers serve the public good, by fostering the creation of great public charter schools that they hold accountable and work to expand. Such charters are held to high financial and academic accountability standards.

In most cases, universities have proven to be exceptional authorizers, combining the infrastructure of existing higher education institutions (financial, legal, human resources, educational, etc.), a very high degree of public and legislative scrutiny and a compelling interest in improving the pipeline for their students. Central Michigan University and the State University of New York are just two models that offer best practices.

–       SB 1085 does allow for the creation of university authorizers in PA, but lacks the clarity and provisions that would enable institutions of higher education to be successful authorizers.

–       The proposal includes dozens of pages addressing the ethical behavior by board members. This language is unnecessary with traditional and existing ethics rules. The strengthening of charter authorizers will ensure the additional oversight and implementation of these rules.

–       SB 1085 seeks to ensure accountability among authorizers by dictating standards. The state education department should be given autonomy to determine what standards of evaluation it wants to apply to authorizers. Further, a specific lobbying group and vendor – in this case, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers – should not be specified in this law.

Goal 2- Address Financial Accountability and Equity. There has been much debate over the years to address public school funding in the Commonwealth, not just for charters. The fact remains that this is a much larger problem that needs practical solutions. Today, most charter schools in PA receive, on average, 30% less per pupil than their traditional public school counterparts. Again, because of a lack of quality oversight by local school boards, the public and lawmakers are calling for greater financial accountability. Meanwhile, many charter school operators are forced to do more with far fewer resources.

–       SB 1085 cuts funding for cyber charter schools by 5% across the board with little regard for how these cuts may impact students. Instead, the proposal suggests transferring those funds back to the district schools where the cyber charter students are no longer being served. The cuts are arbitrary, not based on data or any thorough analysis of school funding.

–       Efforts to address the so-called pension double dip ignore the fact that not all charter schools participate in the state pension program (PSERS) for a number of reasons. These schools would suffer a significant financial blow under the proposed formula.

–       The bill also sets fund balance limits on all charter schools. Therefore, if passed, a charter school that saves money for the purpose of expanding or maintaining a facility, rewarding teachers, creating innovations in technology and learning or growing more schools should not be punished by forced caps on the size of the reserves allowed. It is the role of a school’s authorizer to ensure sound business practices.

–       Further provisions are overreaching in the case of charter school budgets and audits. Again, it is the role of the authorizer to review and make publicly available a school’s budget. Charter schools are already required by law to have audits performed. Legislation need not, and should not, micromanage and require the establishment of a committee of the board or the content of what generally accepted audit principles already require.

Sources in the PA General Assembly have confirmed that the Pennsylvania Education Association and the Pennsylvania School Boards Association have had major input on the proposal and are fairly supportive. Yet, these organizations and other special interest groups oppose the creation of independent, publicly accountable charter schools.

Charter leaders, parents and community leaders should make their voices heard and contact their elected officials immediately. Lawmakers should defer consideration of the current charter proposals until they can fully understand and appreciate the impact on students. Data and due diligence are lacking in the legislation on the table.

The Center for Education Reform is the nation’s oldest and leading organization supporting the creation of high quality and plentiful public charters. Our policy recommendations come from 20 years of experience, data and practice. The most important policy objective Pennsylvania can and must address is the quality in which charter schools are authorized and held accountable. Lessons from other states prove that multiple and truly independent authorizers yield successful schools.