Rep. Mike Reese: Setting the record straight on charter school reform
May 30, 2017
Over the past few weeks I have read many articles and emails that contain falsehoods regarding House Bill 97, my comprehensive charter reform legislation that passed the House of Representatives with bipartisan support in April.
Charter education in Pennsylvania is nearly 20 years old. When first considered, charter education was deemed an innovative approach to expanding educational opportunities for children and families. Over the past two decades, as Pennsylvania has gained more experience with charter schools, it has become necessary to consider revisions to the way these schools are chartered, operated and funded.
HB 97 proposes revisions to the current Charter School Law that would strengthen oversight of charter schools that are not performing adequately. The bill also assembles a Charter School Funding Advisory Commission, which would evaluate the current funding mechanisms and recommend much-needed overhauls to make certain that education dollars are spent in the most fiscally responsible manner.
Critics of HB 97 claim that the bill would reduce or eliminate local oversight and control by school district authorizers. This is a misrepresentation. HB 97 actually provides new tools that will better equip school district authorizers to exercise supervision over charter schools. The bill establishes procedures that have never before been in place in Pennsylvania. These include, but are not limited to:
- A new performance matrix to be developed by the State Board of Education to help school districts evaluate the performance of charter schools.
- A new, more detailed, standard application for new charter schools and for charter school renewals.
- Increased, ongoing access by school districts to the records and facilities of the charter school to ensure that the charter school is in compliance with its charter and all legal requirements and is engaging in sound financial practices.
- A requirement that a charter school form an independent audit committee to review annually a complete, certified audit that includes, among other things, review of internal controls, receipts and reimbursements, annual federal and state tax filings, financial statements, contract selection processes, and all board policies and procedures, which also must be provided to the school district.
- Access to budgets of the charter school and any affiliated charter school foundation.
While HB 97 does allow longer charter renewal terms, it does so only for high-performing charter schools satisfying an academic quality benchmark established by the State Board of Education, and subject to automatic review if the charter school’s performance falters. Importantly, the longer renewal terms would have no effect on the current law that allows school districts to review charter schools on an ongoing basis. Under HB 97, a school board will continue to be able to revoke or not renew a charter at any time, just as in current law.
Another mistruth is that HB 97 will require a school district, when considering the renewal of a charter, to base its decisions on academic performance only. In addition to poor academic performance, some of the reasons a school board will still be able to revoke or not renew a charter at any time include violation of the charter, fiscal mismanagement or other violations of law.
One editorial falsely paints a picture that enactment of HB 97 will instantly create new charter schools. The truth is that the bill would allow charter schools that already have no enrollment caps in their existing agreements to operate in more than one location. This is not at all tantamount to establishing new schools.
While some have alleged that HB 97 will “stack” the Charter School Appeal Board in favor of charter schools, it is important to note that currently, the board includes no charter representation at all. HB 97 would merely add some charter representation on the board, giving the board three charter-affiliated members out of 10. With a 30 percent stake on the board, it is very unlikely that charter school supporters will control the board.
Finally, one critic has suggested that the list of topics to be considered by the Charter School Funding Advisory Commission is too broad. But I believe this rhetoric is flawed. The truth of the matter is that the funding of any educational institution carries with it a broad list of budgetary considerations including personnel, facilities management, transportation, special education and athletics. If this commission is to find savings related to charter education, it must be able to evaluate every aspect of charter school spending.
The purpose of any public school legislation, in my humble opinion, should never be to pit one entity against another – or in this case, to arbitrarily make winners and losers of traditional school districts or charter schools, both of which are public schools and funded by tax dollars. Instead, we should improve the educational product being funded by taxpayers by providing important oversights and evaluating the existing funding formulas. House Bill 97 meets and exceeds these two important benchmarks.