After 20 years, it is long past time for meaningful reforms to Pennsylvania’s charter school law that will benefit students and parents while also protecting our taxpayers. House Bill 97, in its present form, however, is not the legislation to do that.
The bill would significantly diminish local oversight and control by elected school boards who have a fiduciary responsibility to represent the taxpayers who pay for these publicly funded but privately managed schools. HB97 also encourages expansion of the charter sector without appropriate measures to ensure that they are of high quality. Our costly and chronically underperforming cyber charters, authorized by the state, are a prime example of that approach.
Charter operators have no accountability to the taxpayers footing the bill. Their funding comes “shrink-wrapped,' based on local school district spending, with no local press coverage of charter board meetings; no public budget process; no public check registers. For charters that are run by private management companies, like Chester Community Charter, the state’s largest brick and mortar charter, taxpayers know virtually nothing about how their money is spent.
The founder of PA Cyber, the state’s largest cyber charter, used taxpayer funds to buy an airplane and houses for his girlfriend and mother. It is considerably more difficult to syphon off $8 million when there are nine pairs of elected eyes reviewing check registers.
Currently, charters operate under an initial term of three years and a renewal term of five years. HB 97 proposes to expand those terms to five and 10 years, respectively. Why should we extend these terms when public tax dollars are being spent? Expanding the renewal period to 10 years is far too long, especially if a charter is underperforming.
The bill also proposes only using academic standards to determine whether a charter should be renewed. While student performance is the most critical item to be considered, if a charter is not spending tax dollars wisely, hasn’t paid creditors or isn’t providing special education services, authorizing districts will find it difficult to take such factors into account like they can now.
HB97 would stack the state’s Charter Appeals Board in favor of charters enabling the state to overrule local taxpayers’ wishes on authorization and reauthorization decisions. It would also place restrictions on the way school districts may sell or lease the buildings that belong to their taxpayers.
HB97 would permit schools that do not have written agreements on enrollment caps in their charters to expand into more than one location, circumventing the application process and establishing new schools without community input or consideration of quality. It would also permit charters to request amendments to their charters at any time with no clear standards as to how to evaluate the impact of those amendments on quality, financial management or organizational practices.
Finally, the bill proposes a Charter Funding Commission, an idea that makes a lot of sense. In this bill, however, the commission’s focus is far too broad, looking at things such as expanding charter authorizers, funding of charter school facilities, and costs associated with athletic programs. Instead, the commission should be designed like the successful Basic Education Funding Commission and focus solely on charter funding issues. This bipartisan commission early last year developed a school funding formula that was praised for its fairness and had broad consensus on both sides of the political aisle.
Senator Pat Browne and Senator Randy Vulakovich are currently proposing a similar charter funding commission as a stand alone piece of legislation. Perhaps that would be a great place to start to untie the Gordian Knot that charter reform has become in Pennsylvania.
HB97 as written would remove local control over charter schools, and would make sure that state control is pro-charter expansion regardless of taxpayer wishes manifested by their elected school boards. It also doesn’t address the core funding problem: that one family's decision will take resources out of the classrooms of other kids, primarily in our most underfunded districts.
I encourage our senators to work with the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators to address these concerns and improve the bill.
Lawrence A. Feinberg is serving his fifth term as an elected school board member in Haverford Township. He also serves as Chairman of the Delaware County School Boards Legislative Council and is a member of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association’s Governing Board.