After years of gridlock, Wolf plans executive action on charter school reform

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf said Tuesday he would use his executive power to hold charters to “the same ethical and transparency standards of public schools.”

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Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf speaks in the Capitol rotunda in June 2019. (Ed Mahon/PA Post)

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf speaks in the Capitol rotunda in June 2019. (Ed Mahon/PA Post)

After years of political gridlock on charter school reform, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf said Tuesday he would use his executive power to hold charters to “the same ethical and transparency standards of public schools.”

Wolf’s proposal would allow districts to cap enrollment at charter schools that fail to provide “high-quality” education or equitable access and would ramp up oversight of charter management companies — the private companies that sometimes provide academic and logistical services to non-profit charter schools. He’d also charge charter schools for the cost state agencies incur to oversee them and reform charter enrollment practices, among other changes.

He plans to direct the Pennsylvania Department of Education to make these changes through regulation.

“Our laws currently do not allow us — they don’t allow us — to hold charter schools and their operators to the same standards as our traditional public schools,” Wolf said Tuesday.

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The announcement triggered an immediate backlash from the state’s growing charter school sector, which educates about 143,000 children.

“We’re very disappointed,” said Ana Meyers, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.

She believes the regulations are an attempt to restrict the flow of students from traditional schools to charter schools, adding that school choice advocates weren’t consulted about the proposal.

“We were blindsided,” she said.

The growth of charter schools in Pennsylvania has fueled two primary debates: how to oversee the schools and how to pay for them.

On the latter issue, Wolf received support Tuesday from an unlikely place: the Republican-held legislature.

State Senator Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, chair of the Appropriations Committee, said the governor’s announcement was evidence that Pennsylvania’s system for funding charter schools has “reached a crisis point.”

Browne, however, called for the legislature to convene a special session on charter funding, rather than rely on executive action

Mike Straub, spokesman for the Republican caucus in the state house, also questioned Wolf’s use of executive authority. But he welcomed Wolf into “the conversation that the House Republicans have been having for years” on charter reform.

Straub noted that the House passed four charter reform bills last session, although none became law.

He considers Wolf’s announcement “a message to the legislature to take some action on these issues.”

Charters, which are publicly financed but privately run, have generated legions of fans and foes since the 1997 law that created them in Pennsylvania. But that political heat hasn’t led to much meaningful reform, despite advocates on both sides pushing for different changes to the original law.

Charter skeptics say the schools — which receive a per-pupil allotment from their home districts in accordance with a state formula —  draw students and resources from traditional public schools. Critics also believe charters don’t serve the highest-need children, including those with disabilities and those learning English.

Wolf made those points Tuesday flanked by superintendents from financially struggling school districts.

“Allentown School District is ground zero for the growth in charter school expense,” said Thomas Parker, superintendent of the Allentown School District, which wants to reduce charter payments during its current budget crunch.

“We willfully, dutifully and gladly educate every child that walks into our city and into our classrooms, but we need to ensure that we have the resources to do it effectively,” Parker added.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association and the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials backed Wolf’s calls for reform.

School choice supporters argue that charters don’t get their fair share of public funding and are subject to onerous regulation that curtails their original intent as laboratories of innovation. They believe government interference in the sector stifles parent choice and privileges traditional public schools, along with the unionized educators on their payrolls. 

Wolf’s proposals “ would deny families the schooling options they seek,” said Nathan Benefield, Vice President of the Commonwealth Foundation, a liberterian think tank. “Under the guise of accountability, Gov. Wolf is putting restraints on educational progress.”

Wolf also proposed a barrage of charter reform laws Tuesday, in addition to his executive actions.

They include measures that would halt the expansion of cyber charter schools, establish “performance standards” for measuring charter school outcomes, make charter management companies subject to the state’s Right-to-Know law, alter the state’s formula for funding charter schools, and establish a “charter school funding commission” to make further recommendations on the topic.

There’s little detail so far about the governor’s proposals. A spokesperson said today’s announcement was designed to outline “goals and priorities.”

Charter advocate Ana Meyers said the “devil’s in the details,” but that her organization believes some of the executive measures could be illegal.

She questioned, for instance, whether the state could give districts the ability to limit charter enrollment. The state’s charter law says enrollment in charter schools “shall not be subject to a cap” by local school boards.

Meyers also took issue with the governor’s proposal to charge charter schools for the money state regulators spend overseeing them. She said traditional public school districts aren’t taxed for the costs associated with state regulation.

Charter school effectiveness is a matter of intense debate across Pennsylvania, and indeed, the country.

The schools are popular among parents, especially in large cities, such as Philadelphia, which has about half of the state’s charter school students.

Academic research is more mixed. A recent study by Stanford researchers found that brick-and-mortar charter schools in Pennsylvania do slightly better than traditional public schools, but that the state’s cyber charter schools perform poorly.

Charter schools emerged about two decades ago, supported by free-market conservatives and many Democrats disillusioned with the state of traditional public schools in poor communities.

Liberal support for the charters, however, has waned in recent years, with many Democratic politicians, like Wolf, highlighting the sector’s impact on traditional public schools.

That said, polling suggests charters remain popular among core Democratic constituencies, such as black and hispanic voters.

Below is the full text of Wolf’s outline, released earlier today:

Executive Actions

 Governor Wolf is tasking the Department of Education (PDE) with developing regulations to achieve the following:

Access to High-Quality Education for All Students

  • Allow school districts to limit student enrollment at charters that do not provide a high-quality, equitable education to students.
  • Require transparent charter school admission and enrollment policies that do not discriminate based on intellectual or athletic ability, race/ethnicity, gender, or disability, among other student characteristics. 

Transparency and Accountability for All School Leadership

  • Hold charter schools and their operators to the same transparency standards as school districts because they are public schools and receive more than $1.8 billion in state and property tax dollars annually.
  • Require that charter school Board of Trustees and operating companies– like school district School Boards – are free from conflicts of interest and prohibit them from making decisions that provide a financial benefit to themselves, friends, and/or family members.
  • Require charter schools to use sound fiscal management, provide regular financial audits to state regulators, publicly bid contracts for supplies and services, use fair contracting practices, and engage their communities.
  • Provide greater oversight over charter school management companies, the businesses that often profit at the expense of Pennsylvania students and families.
  • Establish a model state application to start a new charter school or renew an existing charter school that provides school districts with comprehensive information on how the school will be run and allow for rigorous analysis.

Fair and Predictable Funding for All Public Schools

  • Establish a clear process that requires charters to accurately document their costs.
  • Prevent charters from over charging districts and taxpayers for the educational services they provide.

Accountability on Behalf of Taxpayers

  • Initiate a fee-for-service model to cover the department’s costs associated with implementing the charter school law.
  • Recoup taxpayer costs for thousands of hours of currently free services that the Department provides to charter schools when it reviews applications, processes millions of payments, and provides legal and administrative support.

Comprehensive Charter School Reform Legislation

In addition to executive action, the governor will propose comprehensive charter school reform legislation containing the regulatory changes and would:

  • Establish performance standards that hold charter schools accountable for the educational outcomes of students and a moratorium on new cyber charter schools
  • Cap student enrollment in low performing cyber charter schools until outcomes improve.
  • Requiring charter management companies be subject to the Right to Know Act, State Ethics Act, and post employee salaries on PDE’s website, similar to requirements already in place for public school districts.
  • Create fair, predictable, and equitable funding for school districts, including in the areas of special education funding and cyber charter tuition payments.
  • Establishing a charter school funding commission to make recommendations on additional charter school funding reforms.

This is a breaking story that will be updated.

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