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Politics swirl around efforts to revise charter law

Preventing financial abuses is one obvious priority. Rendell wants a more comprehensive overhaul.

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In the wake of reports of questionable financial practices in more than a dozen Philadelphia charter schools, state legislators are considering how or whether to overhaul the 13-year-old charter school law to strengthen oversight, tighten accountability, and increase transparency.

The Rendell administration and some legislative leaders disagree over how broad any reform should go – whether to stick to measures designed to prevent financial abuses or wade into deeper waters as to how charter schools are authorized, funded, and renewed. 

Under the current law, what records and transactions that charter schools must make public on demand are not clearly specified, even though they are the legal equivalent of a full-fledged school district. Ethics and conflict-of-interest requirements for charter board members and administrators are vague, and the extent of a district’s power to closely monitor charters is hotly debated.

Charter proponents want what they see as barriers to the creation and operation of charter schools to be eased, despite revelations by The Philadelphia Inquirer and City Controller Alan Butkovitz of profiteering, nepotism, poor record-keeping, and excessive CEO salaries at some charters. 

“The original charter school law did not speak to some of the issues around accountability and ethics that we all recognize now are important,” said acting Secretary of Education Thomas Gluck, who as a Democratic legislative staffer in 1997 helped draft it. 

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Many with high stakes in the outcomes have been notably silent in public on how they want to see the law changed. Rep. Dwight Evans, one of the legislature’s leading proponents of charters and a key player in any reform legislation, declined to make himself available for an interview despite repeated requests.

The executive director and the president of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Charter Schools, an advocacy and support group, also declined to be interviewed. In a radio appearance, director Guy Ciarrocchi agreed with Butkovitz that some tightening of the law is necessary but suggested that some dubious practices could be the result of confusion rather than malfeasance. 

In some cases, he said, “it’s not clear any laws were broken. Where money or privilege has been abused, that needs to be addressed.”

The coalition has called for reducing what many charter operators consider onerous paperwork requirements.

Several legislators have been involved in creating and supporting charter schools, and they or their allies serve on charter boards.

“The questions legislators should be asking is to what extent does the behavior being scrutinized reflect an alleged violation of the law, and to what extent the behavior is not a violation but reflects a weakness in the law,” said Ron Cowell, a former Democratic state senator who now directs the Education Policy and Leadership Center in Harrisburg. “Legislators need to look at both issues.” 

But politically, amending the charter law is tangled up in related education priorities, including the state budget and the need to extend the Education Empowerment Act, which tightens state control over low-performing districts – and is itself friendly to the creation of charters as alternatives to failing schools.

So far, only the Senate Education Committee has acted. Responding to the Butkovitz report – and given a kick-start by the revelation that a charter in West Philadelphia operated a nightclub in its building – it approved a bill in April, S.B. 1314, that would create a state agency to oversee and investigate charter schools.

“This is public money, which needs to be protected, and we want to be sure that when there is public money that it goes to the education of the children,” said Sen. Andrew Dinniman, Democratic chair of the committee.

Dinniman said that he was hopeful the bill would pass the General Assembly in June and be signed by Gov. Rendell.

“We’re in the midst of budget negotiations, and lots of things are happening,” he said, “but I can’t imagine why anyone would be opposed to legislation that protects taxpayer dollars.”

The legislation would also tighten and clarify ethics and training requirements for charter board members to minimize conflicts of interest and other potential abuses. 

A new state Office of Charter and Cyber Charter schools within the Department of Education would develop and distribute standardized forms to be used by every charter school, receive annual reports, and promote the sharing of best practices among schools. It would hear parent grievances.

The office would also receive and investigate allegations of fraud, abuse, and poor academics, with the authority to make referrals to legal authorities.

The bill would require full disclosure of relationships and potential conflicts of interest between board members and administrators and placement of at least one parent on the charter board. It would require each school and any affiliated foundation – which often owns and leases the buildings – to undergo an independent audit annually.

Under the current law, the mechanisms through which charter schools obtain their land and buildings open the door to potential conflicts, problematic lease arrangements, and profiteering. 

“What we’re aiming for is complete transparency of the charters and their foundations,” Dinniman said. 

The bill adds language to clearly state that charter school records and proceedings are subject to the state’s Right-to-Know Law and Open Meetings Law. 

Under the legislation, the primary responsibility for monitoring charters – except for the cybers, or online schools – would remain with the home district. The state office would examine whether districts were adequately monitoring their charters. 

For Philadelphia, where half the state’s charter schools are located and where the most abuses have come to light, the legislation would give the City Controller the authority to audit charter schools.

In his April report, Butkovitz took the School District to task for not adequately overseeing the rapidly proliferating charter schools.

“Under the current bill, school districts are supposed to be policing the charter schools,” Dinniman said. “That hasn’t always been done.”

Other charter reform bills have been introduced, but none has made it past the committee stage. The Rendell administration prefers a more sweeping approach.

“What we’ve said to the senators, while working on that issue around accountability and behavior, we ought to not ignore the funding issues of charter schools,” said Gluck. 

In past attempts to revise the funding, the Rendell administration has gotten nowhere. It first proposed legislation in 2007 to alter how cyber charters are reimbursed and how all schools are paid for special education students. Now, districts can get two to three times the amount per student for special education students as for regular education students, but there is no requirement that they spend the money on those students and no differentiation in payments for mild vs. severe disabilities. 

For the cybers, with more than 20,000 students statewide, the administration wants to impose a uniform per pupil subsidy equal to the lowest amount spent by any charter school in the state last year that met academic achievement targets.

“We need additional safeguards to protect public money and make sure students are getting the kind of education we want them to have,” Gluck said.

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