Pennsylvania Charter School Reform Progress Remains Slow

Published June 15, 2016

Two charter school reform bills have been slowly making their way through a drawn-out tweaking process on their way to their respective legislative chamber floors in Pennsylvania.

State Rep. Mike Reese (R-Somerset) introduced House Bill 530 in February 2015 to create a bipartisan funding commission to make recommendations concerning funding and other matters related to charter school entities,among other objectives. 

The House approved HB 530 in March 2015, and the Senate Education Committee passed it in June 2015, but the Rules Committee has been amending the wording of the bill since January 2016.

State Sen. Lloyd Smucker (R-Lancaster) introduced Senate Bill 6 in May 2015 to establish the Achievement School District and create a state agency to oversee the transition of the state’s lowest-performing schools to charter schools. SB 6 has been under review by the Education Committee since June 2015.

In 2014, Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale called Pennsylvania’s charter system “a mess,” and he is now calling for the governor and General Assembly to take action by reforming the state’s charter school laws with an oversight board. 

Lagging Behind

Bob Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, says several factors are responsible for slowing the charter reform process, including a contentious relationship between the executive and legislative branches, a nine-month budget impasse, opposition from teachers unions and public school districts, and disreputable behavior by some charter schools. Pennsylvania has fallen behind other states, Fayfich says.

“There have been no significant changes to charter legislation since it was first passed in 1997,” Fayfich said. “Much has been learned over that time on the effective and efficient operation of charter schools that has not been reflected in legislation. In that same time period, many other states have enacted more refined charter legislation, and what was once one of the most innovative charter laws in the nation has failed to keep pace and has significantly fallen in all the ratings of the best state charter legislation in the nation.”

‘Too Much Oversight’

Fayfich says more government involvement is not the solution.

“It’s really more about too much oversight rather than too much accountability,” Fayfich said. “All schools should be held accountable for achieving academic improvement and being good stewards of taxpayer money, but too much oversight can strangle new ideas and innovative approaches to education.”

Parents As Evaluators

James Paul, a senior policy analyst with the Commonwealth Foundation, says parents are the ultimate judges of the success or failure of charter schools.

“The ultimate accountability metric for charter schools is whether or not parents choose to enroll in them,” Paul said. “For now, charter schools are incredibly popular in Pennsylvania, and I foresee that continuing long into the future. Policymakers should be careful not to weigh down charter schools with onerous mandates and regulations.”

Paul says though charter school reform is needed, lawmakers should resist the temptation to lard on too many regulations.

“There is room to improve the charter school law, but I would hesitate to overregulate the charter sector,” Paul said. “Schools of choice are most effective when they are freed from the maze of bureaucratic red tape that often burdens traditional public schools.”

Cites Potential Benefits

Paul says HB 530 and SB 6 both bring potential benefits to the table.

“SB 6 is important because it provides a solution for persistently failing public schools,” Paul said. “The bill creates an Achievement School District which could absorb schools in the bottom 1 percent of performance. A seven-member board, appointed by the governor and legislature, would oversee these schools and be granted the power to convert the school into a charter. Students and families trapped in failing school districts deserve a lifeline to better educational opportunities. SB 6 can provide that lifeline.”

Paul says HB 530 is “an acceptable bill” but flawed because it attempts to tackle so many issues, which Paul says “could speak to the slow-moving process.”

Andy Torbett ([email protected]) writes from Atkinson, Maine.