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A Big Charter School Struggle Has Been Galvanized by a Democratic Governor

By Andrew Ujifusa — August 18, 2019 3 min read
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A battle over school choice in Pennsylvania is intensifying, in large part due to a governor who doesn’t like his state’s status quo.

Back in June, we reported on Gov. Tom Wolf’s decision to veto a bill expanding the state’s tax-credit scholarship program and how, in doing so, the Democratic governor captured the mood of the national party’s skepticism of choice. Just a few days ago, Wolf underscored the position he’s staked out on the issue by calling for major changes to charter schools in the Keystone State.

On Tuesday, the second-term governor directed his state department of education to determine a way to limit enrollment in “underperforming” charters (as the Associated Press put it). In addition, according to the AP, Wolf also “wants charter schools to meet stricter transparency, ethics, and financial management standards and to prevent them from overcharging public schools for their services.” (The Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, which applauded Wolf’s proposals, said that in the 2017-18 school year, state school districts provided $1.8 billion to charter schools.)

There still is some uncertainty about what Wolf is proposing. Among the questions we had about Wolf’s suite of policy proposals:

  • How exactly would the state determine what constitutes a high-quality charter school or (conversely) a school that fails to meet that standard?
  • Why would Wolf oppose limiting enrollment at these charters, instead of calling on them to be shut down or presenting a proposal to the state legislature to do so?
  • Does the state have any numbers to share about how much his proposed financial reforms could benefit districts?

We put those questions to the state education department, and we’ll update this post if we hear back. Pennsylvania’s legislature is controlled by Republicans, making any legislative proposals on this issue from Wolf a tough sell.

However, the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools slammed the governor’s proposals as unfairly targeting charter schools, and accused him of overriding thousands of families’ decisions about education with his own erroneous judgement. “Furthermore, it seems that Governor Wolf is abusing his authority as we believe that some of what he is proposing through executive order and regulatory action is contrary to the law,” the coalition said in a statement.

We asked the coalition if Wolf’s stepped-up moves against the charter sector caught them off-guard. In response, the group said the governor’s moves “came without warning to the charter school community but the blatant attack on charter schools and the students they serve was not surprising.”

“We are looking into the legality of his proposal to charge charter schools for technical assistance provided by the [state education department] and arbitrarily capping charter school enrollment,” the coalition said.

As he’s shored up his standing with traditional public schools and their advocates, Wolf hasn’t been afraid to pit charter schools against traditional public schools and the districts that run them.

Earlier this month, the governor referred to charter schools as “private.” In response, Ana Meyers, the executive director of the state charter coalition, said she was “shocked” at what she called the governor’s ignorance. Her group also accused Wolf of hypocrisy, saying that, “Across the state we have many school districts failing both financially and academically ... Even though some of these districts are under state control, they are still failing their students.”

Last month, PennLive reported that Wolf lamented “the privatization of education in our public schools.” And in a news release celebrating a $1.4 billion increase for both K-12 and higher education, the governor stated, “Pennsylvania must help school districts struggling with the problem of increasing amounts of school funding siphoned by private cyber and charter schools.”

Charters are publicly financed but operate independently from traditional public school district leadership. Charter schools in the state got a mixed review from Stanford University this year, with brick-and-mortar charters showing some good results but cyber charters struggling. (Cyber charters have had a particularly troubled history in Pennsylvania.)

Support for charter schools has gradually eroded for Democrats, at least at the national level, over the last 25 years or so. This year, most Democratic candidates for president have been reluctant to publicly support them. To a certain extent, Wolf’s criticism of charters mirrors attacks from Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who wants to impose major limits on how charters are funded and how they operate.

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