Capitolwire: Concerns exist on all sides of charter school reform.
April 19, 2017
Capitolwire: Concerns exist on all sides of charter school reform. By Carley Mossbrook
HARRISBURG (April 18) – Now that they’ve made some headway with a budget for next fiscal year, state House lawmakers have turned their attention to other long-standing, controversial efforts, including reforming the state’s charter school law.
Yet, it doesn’t appear as though many lawmakers favor everything in the omnibus reform package considered in Tuesday’s Education Committee – although enough to get committee approval.
Introduced by Rep. Mike Reese, R-Westmoreland, House Bill 97, seeking to reform the state’s 20-year-old charter school law, passed the committee with a short debate and mostly partisan vote, though even supporting members aired concerns.
“It’s not a perfect piece of legislation. I’ve never seen one in the fourteen-and-a-half years I’ve been here as a member. But you can tell a lot about a bill by who is happy and who’s not. And everybody’s not happy and everybody’s not totally opposed, so that’s usually when you have a pretty decent product, ” said Rep. David Hickernell, R-Dauphin, the committee’s majority chairman, prior to the 17-10 vote.
Democratic Reps. Jared Solomon and Maureen Madden crossed party lines to vote for the bill, while Republican Rep. John McGinnis voted against it.
The 75-page bill, as described by its sponsor, would “improve school choice” and “create a level playing field” between traditional public schools and charter schools, while also saving taxpayer dollars.
Specifically, on the fiscal front, the legislation would change the funding formula for cyber charter schools, establish a funding commission to study and make recommendations regarding charter school funds, streamline payment dispute resolution processes and limit charter school entities’ unassigned fund balances, among other changes, said Reese.
The funding formula for cyber charter schools would, beginning in the 2017-18 school year, expand the deductions school districts can make from their per-student expenditures when calculating their payments to cyber charter schools by including the total amount the school district paid to cyber charter schools for the prior school year, tax assessment and collection services and 30 percent of operation and maintenance of plant services.
The formula change, which would only apply to the costs of regular education students, is projected to save traditional public schools $27 million.
Furthermore, Reese’s legislation would reform the Ethics Act applied to charter schools to provide for greater transparency and accountability; develop teacher evaluation systems similar to those required for school districts; require the state Board of Education to develop performance matrixes for charter schools; extend renewal terms for high-performing schools; standardize the application process used by interested parties seeking a charter and amend the membership makeup of the Charter School Appeal Board.
It would also allow for better enforcement of truancy laws; allow for the approval of more than one charter school under a shared board of trustees; grant charter school entities a right of first refusal for the purchase or lease of unused school district building; require school districts, State System of Higher Education institutions and community colleges to allow cyber charter schools access to their facilities for student standardized testing and allow families with multiple cyber charter students to opt of receiving multiple pieces of equipment for schooling, among other changes, according to Reese’s bill.
With plenty of changes to consider, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle took issue with some of the provisions.
Like some of his House Democratic colleagues, Rep. James Roebuck, D-Philadelphia, believes the reform effort doesn’t go far enough to address disparities between traditional public schools and charter schools.
“While there is some good reform to the charter school law in House Bill 97, they are far outweighed by many provisions that increase the divide between the way that charter schools and traditional public schools are treated by the state,” said Roebuck, who serves as the minority chairman of the committee.
He said the bill provides minimal savings to public school districts through the cyber charter funding reform, unfairly stacks the Charter School Appeal Board with more pro-charter members and provides the proposed funding commission with powers beyond the scope of funding.
The legislation also doesn’t address special education overpayments or ensure charter school teachers are evaluated under the same system as public schools, he said.
“Charter schools should be held to the same standards of academic performance and academic and fiscal accountability and transparency that school districts must uphold,” said Roebuck, who voted against the legislation.
Rep. Kathy Rapp, R-Warren, finds the $27 million cut to cyber charter schools to be problematic for the charter schools, though she voted in the affirmative.
“I believe that possibly we should wait until the commission looks at the funding formula,” she said. “With that being said, there’s things I like about the bill. I will be lending my support to the bill here in committee. I’m not making any promises beyond that.”
Lawmakers aren’t the only ones concerned with the formulary change and subsequent cut to cyber charter schools.
Ana Meyers, executive director of the PA Coalition on Public Charter Schools, hopes the cuts will be addressed as the legislation moves forward so that cyber chart schools don’t have to close their doors or limit students.
“There is definitely a demand for cyber schools in the state,” she said. “Cyber schools bring a different dimension to school choice – a positive dimension.”
Despite that concern, Meyers is “thrilled” to see the bill moving.
“There are a lot of great elements in the bill,” said Meyers, calling the reforms “years in the making.”
She especially supports the provisions that would give charters the right of first refusal on unused school buildings, adding more representatives of the charter community to the appeal board and extending charter renewal terms from 5 years to 10 years.
The Pennsylvania School Board Association doesn’t support the legislation, according to its website.
“PSBA continues to strongly believe that charter schools should be held to the same standards of academic performance, accountability and transparency that local school districts must uphold,” it wrote on its website. “We have always been hopeful that an omnibus charter bill could address these core issues, but like previous attempts, House Bill 97 falls short.”
The association recommends the Legislature split the bill into three separate pieces addressing accountability, governance and funding considerations and include requirements that charter schools use the same teacher evaluation methods, ethical standards and accountability measures as traditional public schools.
Leaders of the association did not return calls for comment as of Tuesday evening.
The Pennsylvania State Education Association is neutral on the legislation at this time, said spokesman David Broderick. The association is monitoring the bill as it moves through the legislative process.
Reese, at the end of the meeting, characterized the reform as a work in progress and says he plans to engage stakeholders throughout the legislative process.
Last session, a similar bill, House Bill 530, was approved by the House 118-78. It was later amended and approved by the Senate 40-10 before returning to the House on concurrence. After multiple re-referrals to House committees, it was never brought up for a vote by House leaders.
The bill will move to the House floor for second consideration.