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PA: Senate approves charter school reform bill after cutting key component

By   /   October 16, 2012  /   No Comments

By Eric Boehm and Melissa Daniels | PA Independent

Lawmakers in the House and Senate have reached a compromise to remove language from the bill that would have granted new powers to an existing state board that oversees charter schools.

HARRISBURG — The state Senate approved a number of educational and financial accountability reforms for Pennsylvania’s charter schools, but it did so after removing a key component that charter school advocates said was essential to expanding educational choice in the state.

The final vote was 33-16, which sends SB 1115 to the state House for a final vote, which could come Wednesday.

The bill’s series of reforms include a new statewide performance matrix for charters, a requirement that all charters audit their books annually and limitations on how much the schools can hold in reserve bank accounts. The bill does not deal with the funding formula for charter schools, which groups on both sides believe needs to be revised at some point.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate reached a compromise to remove language from the bill that would have granted new powers to an existing state board that oversees charter schools. Charter school advocates and the Corbett administration were seeking to give the board the ability to authorize new charter schools.

Currently, charters can be granted only by the school district that would host the new charter school.

Charters and their supporters have been upset with that arrangement because, they say, most school boards are opposed to creating more charter schools.

“Ultimately, we would like to see a statewide authorizer,” Larry Jones, president of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said after the vote Tuesday.

Even without that component, the bill is still a bold, needed step forward for charter schools that will create a more universal accountability measure, instead of the current patchwork system, Jones said.

The state has 157 traditional brick-and-mortar charter schools and 16 cyber charter schools that teach students in their homes.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association opposed the statewide authorizing plan because, they said, it would supersede local control over the creation of charters.

Sen. Jeff Piccola, R-Dauphin

Under current law, charters rejected by school boards can appeal the decision to the statewide charter school appeals board. The bill keeps that process in place, but state Sen. Jeff Piccola, R-Dauphin, said the appeals board would be strengthened by changing board members to people “more charter-friendly and more objective.”

Piccola, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said the PSBA had been “outright lying” about the legislation in recent days as it tried to persuade lawmakers against passing it.

While the legislation does not allow the state board to authorize new charter schools, it does allow existing charter school operators that run multiple schools to consolidate those charters and transfer oversight to the state board.

Jonathan Cetel, executive director of education reform advocacy group Pennsylvania Campaign for Action Now, said independent authorizers, such as a statewide board, would allow for quality charter schools.

School districts don’t have the human or financial capital to properly oversee charters, and they can see charters as competition, unable to be truly independent, he said.

“There are some authorizers that don’t know how to provide the support that charters need,” he said.

As authorizers, school districts are charged with renewing charters every five years as well as monitoring operations. Cetel said school districts may be too busy with their own operations to keep up with what’s happening — fiscally or academically — at a charter school.

“A good authorizer, during renewal, will close schools that are not meeting the expectations of their charter, and if there are charter schools that are doing great, allow them to grow,” Cetel said.

Cetel hopes for a statewide authorization board in the spring, even though Piccola, a champion of charters, is leaving the General Assembly.

But school districts prefer to retain local oversight of charters, said Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

Existing laws are too vague regarding a district’s scope of authority over a charter, he said.

“Charter schools are essentially funded by local school districts, and the local district should have that authority, and it should be clear in the statute about what the scope of that authority is,” he said.

Buckheit applauded the recent reform measures for their additions to transparency, ethics and a new cap on fund balances equivalent to that of a public school.

And while he acknowledged the need for charter school funding reform, saying the present formula has “no relationship to the cost of education students,” he questioned the proposed commission’s ability to develop a new structure.

The commission’s appointed makeup fails to fairly represent traditional schools, he said.

“It is appropriate that a review be done to see what the costs are of operating charter schools, so there’s some give and take that needs to happen,” he said. “We are concerned about the language in the bill that creates the funding commission because it is heavily weighted in favor of the charter school community.”

Lawmakers brought the charter school bill to the brink of passage on the final day of the budget session in June – both the state House and state Senate passed versions of the bill that differed by only a handful of sentences.

Now, nearly four months later, the bill appears to be on its way to the governor’s desk. A final vote in the state House is planned Wednesday.

Tim Eller, spokesman for the Department of Education, said the administration supported the final version of the bill, which he said contains “badly needed updates to our Charter School Law that will increase the accountability and performance of our charter school system.”

Corbett continues to support the concept of a statewide authorizer, and the state could revisit the issue next year, Eller said.

Contact Boehm at eric@paindependent.com

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Eric Boehm