Debate over Pa. charter schools gets swirled into larger state budget talks

    In this file photo

    In this file photo

    Negotiations center on potential changes to the nearly 20 year old charter law.

    A bill that would substantially revise Pennsylvania’s charter school law for the first time since its inception nearly 20 years ago is being hotly debated in the capitol. 

    Charter school advocates are couching the bill as a fair compromise, while traditional school advocates say it’s an unwise overreach.

    Republican legislative leaders have been pushing for the bill to be included in any broader deal that would boost state revenues, Senate leaders though have said they are not willing to let it derail budget talks.

    On Sunday night, Gov. Tom Wolf agreed to allow a $31.5 billion spending plan to become law without first figuring out how to pay for it.

    As leaders work towards a revenue package compromise, a charter school policy debate has been swirled within the larger talks.

    Two decades after its inception, there’s wide agreement that the current charter law has fallen well behind the times. 

    “The charter law in Pennsylvania, relative to laws in other states, has consistently been dropping every year in terms of its effectiveness,” said Robert Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition for Public Charter Schools.

    State Auditor General Eugene Depasquale recently took that sentiment a step further, saying Pennsylvania’s “is simply the worst charter school law in the United States.”

    The original 1997 state law was considered out of touch with the needs and challenges of both the traditional and charter sectors almost immediately after implementation.

    The latest version of a bill that would revise the law is available to the public, but leaders continue to tweak language behind closed doors, potentially giving people very little time to read the changes before a vote.

    “The legislature has not been able to broker a compromise bill that sort of finds a common ground that both sides are comfortable with,” said Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. “The latest version that was public we think was tilted too far to the charter school side.”

    So what’s in the bill as written?

    There are a few proposals that garner widespread agreement.

    Among them, charter board members would have to adhere to a stricter set of ethical standards, curtailing the potential for nepotism and abuse.

    A state commission would be set up to study charter school funding.

    And all charters would need to use a state-created common enrollment application, making the process simpler and more transparent for parents.

    But, of course, there’s also plenty to disagree about.

    “There’s a lot missing. There’s internal contradictions. There’s words that could be interpreted in a variety of ways without definitions,” said Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth.

    She and other traditional public school advocates don’t like the bill, in large part because of things that aren’t included.

    The existing charter law does not allow school districts to unilaterally limit charter school enrollment growth. A recent state supreme court ruling involving the School District of Philadelphia made that point even more definitively.

    Cooper says districts need to be able to cap charter enrollment in order to manage their finances and prevent cuts to traditional schools.

    “It’s a bill that’s not ready for primetime and it’s being shoved through in the last days of the legislative session,” she said.

    Although the bill doesn’t explicitly sanction unfettered charter expansion, Cooper believes that some of provisions of the bill could lead to that.

    For instance, the bill allows charters to request amendments to their agreements. If the school board rejects the ask, the charter can appeal to a state board – the composition of which the bill would make more charter friendly.

    It would also limit a district’s ability to cap a charter’s grade levels without its consensus.

    The School District of Philadelphia, which oversees by far the most charters in the state, believes that, in total, the bill would hurt the city’s children.

    Superintendent William Hite sent a letter to state lawmakers urging them to vote against the bill, saying it would “significantly increases costs while simultaneously allowing schools to expand unproven educational models to Philadelphia students.”

    The district wants to see reforms that would hold charters to higher standards of quality – preventing low performers from opening and, if necessary, speeding up the often laborious closure process.

    “When we have a law that does not allow for strong charter authorizing practices, there is a weakness there. There is a break in the link,” said DawnLynne Kacer, executive director of the district’s charter office.

    The cost of ‘doing nothing’

    The bill, as written, also allows two or more charter schools to consolidate into a “multiple charter school organization,” which would allow each charter network to be managed by the same board, streamlining operations.

    Charter networks such as Mastery and KIPP have long advocated for this right, arguing that existing regulations cause undue governance headaches.

    The bill also sets up a separate performance evaluation system for charters. Those that score high would be able to be renewed for ten-year agreements, instead of the typical five.

    Individual school districts would be barred from developing a separate performance matrix for the evaluation of a charters, as Philadelphia has under Kacer’s leadership.

    Charter advocates laud these potential changes, and, on the whole, feel the bill is fair to all sides.

    “Compromises in politics often happens because both sides realize that the cost of doing nothing is the worst case scenario,” said Jonathan Cetel, executive director of PennCAN, a pro-charter reform group that has been lobbying aggressively for the bill.

    One of those key compromises is a reduction in the payments to cyber charters — which currently receive the same amount of money as bricks-and-mortar charters.

    But this potential cut is one of the provisions that sources say is being actively negotiated.

    As is, districts would save money in that deal, but cyber charter proponents object to the arbitrary nature of the reduction, and want details to be hashed out by the abovementioned charter funding commission.

    The bill would also limit charter school fund balances to a range of 12 to 16 percent, and demand that additional surpluses be returned to the authorizing district.

    There are also compromises not included in the bill. A previous version of charter reform legislation would have created a state-run-and-selected network of schools deemed to be in need of drastic intervention. Another iteration would have allowed colleges and universities to authorize new charters.

    As written, the bill would expand by $25 million the state’s program for giving tax credits to buisnesses that donate to private schools. 

    All of these debates are happening in the midst of extremely fluid talks about how raise enough revenue to cover the $31.5 billion state budget.

    A source close to negotiations says Governor Wolf has made clear he will not sign any bill that fails to allow districts like Philadelphia to hold charter growth in check.

    If consensus can’t be reached on some of the more controversial proposals, it’s likely that lawmakers will also punt on the less contentious changes that most agree are necessary.

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