Pa. charter school law ‘worst in US,’ state auditor general says

Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale criticizes the state charter law at a news conference at School District of Philadelphia headquarters. (Kevin McCorry / WHYY)

Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale criticizes the state charter law at a news conference at School District of Philadelphia headquarters. (Kevin McCorry / WHYY)

Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale issued a scathing report damning the state charter law Tuesday, and he blamed many of the School District of Philadelphia’s fiscal woes on state lawmakers who have not revised the nearly 20-year-old measure.

“Our charter school law is simply the worst charter school law in the United States,” said DePasquale at a news conference at Philadelphia’s district headquarters.

Specifically, DePasquale said, the law fails to give districts the power to ensure that only high-performing charters that serve equitable populations of children are opening. And he lamented that districts waste too much time and too many resources fighting to close underperformers.

He blamed recent failed efforts in Harrisburg to reform the charter law on special interest lobbying.

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“What else could it be?” he said, citing the popularity of reforms in preliminary votes.

DePasquale’s audit studied the impact of Philadelphia charters on the traditional district schools using data from July 2011 to June 2015. He will release an audit of the district itself later this spring.

DePasquale targeted a few specific actions during Gov. Tom Corbett’s tenure for deepening Philadelphia’s woes, including eliminating funds that helped cover the added costs of the charter sector.

“The tension between the district that authorized them and the charter school has to end,” he said. “And when the charter school reimbursement was pulled away, that exacerbated the tension. So it literally became a fight for funding, and that has to stop.”

DePasquale also decried the fact that state Republicans amended the 2014 cigarette tax to make it easier for charters to open in Philadelphia. He said the costs incurred by the district because of this will soon outstrip the benefits — especially because the revenue-generating portion of the bill is set to expire in three years.

Democrats had pushed for the cigarette tax, and chose to continue pursuing the short-term funding boost, even after the amendment was added.

“We were successful on the revenue side. We were not successful in amending to prevent the implementation of more charters put in place,” said state Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, who attended DePasquale’s news conference.

DePasquale also highlighted the need for the district to pour more resources into its charter office. In recent years, the cash-strapped district has charged just six employees with overseeing 80-some schools serving more than 60,000 students — a population far exceeding the state’s second-largest traditional district, Pittsburgh.

This year, the charter office has nine full-time employees, and new office executive director DawnLynne Kacer has been widely praised for increasing rigor and accountability.

Often a booster of the charter sector, School Reform Commissioner Farah Jimenez supported DePasquale’s findings, and specifically criticized the fact that charters have a perverse fiscal incentive to enroll special education students with less costly needs.

This sort of inequity, she said, makes it more difficult for traditional educators to think of charters they way they were originally intended — as laboratories of pedagogical innovation.

“When there’s ongoing tension between the two systems — no matter what models of innovation may be provided by the charter sector — it’s not going to be welcomed by the district in the same way, because it can’t reasonably be able to duplicate it with the limited resources it has,” said Jimenez.

Local charter proponents agree with the need for some reforms to the law, but fear DePasquale’s recommendations would limit charters’ recourse to fight non-renewal.

“Persistently underperforming charter schools and public schools should be closed, but the due process is something that needs to be in place for everybody,” said Bob Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition for Public Charter Schools.

Philadelphia Charters for Excellence executive director Amy Ruck Kagan agreed.

“It is time to move past the adversarial position of ‘traditional vs. charter’ schools and work to create an environment where both sectors can flourish,” she said. “It is why PCE has embraced the charter school office and will continue to work closely with them to increase transparency and accountability for our member schools.”

Moving forward, DePasquale warned that the recent state Supreme Court ruling that blunted the SRC’s powers could further hurt the district’s budget and allow the expansion of more underperforming schools.

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