Charter expansion bill is all tricks, no treats for Pennsylvania taxpayers

Pennsylvania State Capitol building (Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo

Pennsylvania State Capitol building (Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo

Halloween is just around the corner, but there is something far scarier in the halls of the Pennsylvania Capitol than any zombie that comes knocking on your door. While private charter operators could potentially get a big treat in the form of House Bill 530, the rest of us will be holding a bag full of tricks. And sadly, the ones who will suffer are our kids.

With only a few days left on the legislative calendar, legislators are trying to push through charter expansion with HB 530. Those in favor are dressing it up in the best costume they have and passing it off as charter school reform. It is anything but. The state’s most recent School Performance Profile scores show that only 22 percent of charters achieved a score of 70 or higher. So why are legislators so quick to allow unchecked expansion of these schools and wasting of tax dollars?

There are many good charter schools out there. They serve a valuable piece of the education puzzle in our state. However, the lack of accountability and transparency is something that taxpayers should not tolerate. If HB 530 were to become law, charters would be able to ignore enrollment caps, hold higher fund balances than their traditional school counterparts, open schools in more than one location without permission from the authorizing entity, and won’t need to participate in the state evaluation system for teachers and principals required of other schools, to name just a few consequences.

Authors of HB 530 also made sure to stack the decks in favor of charters through a new Charter School Funding Advisory Commission the bill creates. The purpose of the commission is to explore issues related to charter schools and make recommendations. Its members include representatives from charter schools, the secretary of education, legislators and members chosen by legislators, and school business managers. Oddly, school directors who are charged with authorizing charter schools (and who are responsible for raising local revenue from their neighbors to support education) have no seat on the commission. Also, the current six-member Charter School Appeal Board is expanded to nine. Two of the three new positions are reserved for charter school administrators and trustees.

As schools consolidate and state populations continue to drop, many schools are finding that they need to shut down school buildings. Currently, schools can work within certain parameters to sell or lease these buildings. HB 530 requires schools to first offer these buildings to charters on first right of refusal, simply ignoring the wishes of the local taxpayers who paid for these buildings and may have other desired uses for the facilities.

One final concern I wish to mention is a new performance matrix created by HB 530 that would be used to measure the academic performance of charter schools and to assess renewal terms. This matrix is the only measure that may be used by school boards for evaluating a charter school. In current law, charters can be revoked for poor academic performance. Additionally, under case law, if a charter school does not meet specific, measurable academic benchmarks required under federal law it may be subject to charter revocation if the sending school districts are performing better. House Bill 530 eliminates the ability to compare charter schools and their sending school districts, and undermines the original intent of the Charter School Law to create schools that provide something above and beyond than provided by traditional public schools. Oh, and guess who creates this matrix? The previously mentioned commission that is weighted in favor of charter school representatives.

Yes, indeed, there is something scary going on this time of year. While charters may be getting a nice treat, let’s hope HB 530 doesn’t pass leaving taxpayers to say that famous Charlie Brown line from the classic TV special, “I got a rock.”

Lawrence Feinberg is serving his 17th year as a school director in Haverford Township and also serves on the Governing Board of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. PSBA’s membership comprises 4,500 statewide locally elected volunteer officials.

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