Penn. Legislators Remain Divided Over Charter Law Update

Published November 5, 2012

The Republican-led Pennsylvania legislature has backed off from a proposal to create an independent charter school authorizer, despite Gov. Tom Corbett’s support.

The state Senate passed a bill by a two-thirds majority that would have required regular financial audits and other beefed-up oversight for the independent public schools, but the House refused to take it up before adjourning in October.

In negotiations, legislators split over allowing an independent entity to sponsor charter schools in addition to local school districts. Of the 41 states that allow charters, approximately 18 offer viable multiple authorizers to applicants hoping to open the schools, which are fully public but given freedom in matters such as curriculum, budget, and staffing in return for a higher likelihood of closure and tighter oversight.

Legislators agreed to form a commission to study funding inequities, commission annual independent school audits, require state education officials to assess academic performance, and mandate that charters establish teacher evaluation systems, according to a summary Senate Republicans provided. A few days later, House Republicans could not agree to that, either, so leaders refused to bring the bill up for what would have been a failed vote.

“The best way to have high-quality and strong charter schools is to have strong, fair and consistent authorizers,” said Bob Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools (PCPCS).

Those agreements have yet to be worked into Senate Bill 1115. Pennsylvania charter laws have not been updated for nearly 15 years. In September, hundreds of charter school students and supporters visited the state capitol to lobby for the proposed reforms. Forty-four thousand students sit on Pennsylvania charter school waitlists, according to the PCPCS.

Committee, Not Authorizer
The bill would create a 17-member Charter School Entities Funding Advisory Committee to ensure impartial and transparent funding processes, provide for direct charter funding, create bond provisions, and extend the renewal limit for new charters from three to five years and established schools from five to ten. Extending these time periods gives financial institutions more confidence when investing in charter school bonds, Fayfich said.

Pennsylvania charters operate on an average of 30 percent less taxpayer dollars than traditional public schools, according to PCPCS.

An independent charter authorizer would help address the conflict of interest in having administrators of traditional schools have veto power over charter schools, Fayfich said. Because charter schools can compete with traditional schools for students, some school districts are reluctant to authorize them.

An independent authorizer would “prevent conflicts of interest for folks administering a charter school,” said Priya Abraham, a senior analyst at the Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives.

Outdated Funding Formula
“There’s been a lot of outcry that charter schools are getting too much [money],” Abraham said. “What charter schools get is about 80 percent of the average per-pupil spending in Pennsylvania.”

The state’s outdated funding formula is the real source of inequity, she said.

“The funding formula … doesn’t follow enrollment trends very well,” she said. “Some school districts are growing, so that funding formula isn’t keeping pace.”

Parent Trigger Hold-Up
One cause for the legislation’s limbo is debate over including a Parent Trigger law, Abraham said. House lawmakers generally oppose the idea of letting a majority of parents have the power to require their child’s school be converted to a charter school, while Senators generally approve it.

“We think the Parent Trigger would be a great option,” she said.

The Parent Trigger debates and independent authorizer provisions, the most liberating for families and local communities, were central in holding up the bill, Abraham said.

“It does boil down to politics a lot,” she said. “Part of the issue is the Senate wants a strong Parent Trigger in the bill… It’s very unlikely they’re going to get that, at least this session, and that means that charter school reforms aren’t probably all going to go, either.”

Leaders in both chambers said they will not hold votes when lawmakers return mid-November.

Image by Penn State.