Senate Democratic Policy Committee tackles role of charter schools in public education
October 17, 2016
The Senate Democratic Policy Committee held a hearing in Pittsburgh Thursday to discuss the role of charter schools in public education across the state.
“I hope today’s hearing gives us a better sense of how the charter school system works; how it compliments, or detracts from traditional pubic schools; and ways we can make these schools more efficient, transparent and accountable,” said Sen. Lisa Boscolo (D-Lehigh), chairman of the committee.
Calling Pennsylvania’s charter school law the “worst in the nation,” Auditor General Eugene DePasquale issued a 95-page audit last month that revealed numerous examples of financial mismanagement, conflicts of interest and poor oversight.
Many of the recommendations of the auditor general’s audit are incorporated into Sen. Jim Brewster’s (D-Allegheny) legislation to reform charter schools. His proposal, plus the components of HB 530 were discussed throughout the hearing as ways in which the charter school law could be reformed.
“It has become abundantly clear that systemic changes are needed in how brick and mortar and cyber charters operate in Pennsylvania,” said Sen. Brewster. “The auditor general has made a number of worthwhile recommendations and I’ve combined some of these ideas with other features to produce what I believe is an excellent starting point for comprehensive reform.”
One of those recommendations is looking critically at the way Pennsylvania’s 174 charter schools are funded and reconfiguring the payment appeals process to better reflect a fair funding formula for both the charter school and its school district.
“The appeals process of the payments through the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) is a major problem,” said Auditor General DePasquale. “When the district believes that the charter is in a sense over-billing, whether the district is right or wrong, the charter then gets their payment from PDE and the district has to wait three, four, five years until PDE hears that appeals process.”
The superintendent of the Woodland Hills School District, Alan N. Johnson, said how his district sees this first hand. He noted that 15 million dollars of the district’s 90 million dollar budget goes toward charter school tuition which is taken from their state basic education subsidies to the point where in the 2015-2016 school year, their disbursement was just $6,000.00.
“A normal subsidy for our district would be almost one million dollars,” he said. “The rest was taken to satisfy debts that over 15 charter schools claimed they were owed. And taken is the appropriate word. We were not offered an opportunity to disagree.”
Those representing charter schools at the hearing said it has been the way in which the legislature and the Governor have decided to fund public charter schools- i.e. through the local school district- that has complicated the original intent of charter schools and has stifled a relationship of cooperation and collaboration between the two entities.
“[Charter schools] were to exist with less regulation with the understanding that they would give back to their local neighborhood public schools and districts,” said Ron Sofo, CEO and Principal of the City Charter High School in Pittsburgh. “Taking money directly from school districts and making them pay charter school student tuition does not foster collaboration and collegial relationships with regards to educational programming.”
Anthony Pirrello, CEO of the Montessori Regional Charter School in Erie agreed stating that in his 10 years at his school, he has never seen the political climate so hostile.
“Currently there is no spirit of cooperation between the governor’s office, the PDE and the charter school movement,” he said.
Another area of funding concern is cyber-charter schools and how they are supported.
“We have to have a separation between what brick and mortar charter schools do and cyber schools because I think part of the perception problem with respect to funding is accountability and openness and transparency- there is a real issue there,” said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa.
HB 530, sponsored by Rep. Mike Reese (R-Somerset) would call for a funding commission to determine what the actual costs for cyber schools are and establish a standardized funding formula.
But Jeremy Resnick, Executive Director of Propel Schools and Keystone Alliance of Charter Schools believes a solution to that problem would be to not think of cyber schools as charter schools at all.
“I think you should have a separate statue that applies to cybers so that we’re not having hearings like this where we’re bouncing back and forth between what we think of as real charter schools and cyber schools,” he said. “They are two very different things and they should be treated separately.”
Other considerations of reform and topics of discussion throughout the hearing included the concern of charter schools using outside management companies and making a profit, limiting the scope of the state Charter School Appeal Board, accounting for charter school student migration, and uniform tuition to charters across the state.
“We need to to dig deep and look critically at the charter law to make sweeping changes,” said Sen. Brewster. “It is clear that the charter law is not helping schools, charters themselves or the taxpayers.”