Law & Courts

Practical Hurdles at Play in Pa. Charter-Law Stumble

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 30, 2012 5 min read

A recent effort by Pennsylvania officials to re-examine the state’s charter school laws highlights the challenges states may face as they try to change the policy and political environment for charters.

In mid-October, lawmakers failed in their regular legislative session to agree on a bill that would have, among other provisions, established a statewide commission to look at charter school finance. Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, expressed his desire to sign such a measure and previously had said charter reform was a priority this fall.

Ultimately, a GOP partisan advantage in the state government did not help charter advocates, who are clamoring for an overhaul of Pennsylvania’s charter law, which was passed in 1997.

“There’s been some legislative progress around the country. But it’s not been easy. It’s incremental. It’s all trench warfare,” said Matthew Ladner, a senior policy adviser at the pro-charter Foundation for Excellence in Education, based in Tallahassee, Fla. He said states should be relatively permissive about who can start charters, but “ruthless” when assessing results and deciding which of those largely independent public schools should be closed.

Indiana is one such state. In 2011, it expanded charter school options by creating a statewide charter sponsor, while bolstering academic accountability by increasing the state school board’s authority to close charters and establishing new accountability criteria for charters.

Foes in Both Parties

Pennsylvania has 157 brick-and-mortar charter schools and 16 cyber charters. About 105,000 students are enrolled in charters, including about 32,000 in cyber charters—one of the largest cyber-enrollments of any state, according to the Washington-based National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Eight cyber charters have applied to open in the state for the 2013-14 school year, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported last week.

In addition to creating a state panel on charter school funding, Senate Bill 1115, which also dealt with special education law in Pennsylvania, would have extended the length of charters for both new and existing schools.

As a compromise, plans to establish a statewide authorizer for charters and a version of a “parent trigger” law for charter conversions were stripped out of previous versions of the bill, in an attempt to enact the first major changes to the law since it was passed, said Bob Fayfich, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.

But Republicans in the state House of Representatives could not agree on the bill, which did not get a vote. Some GOP members said accountability provisions were not strong enough.

(Accountability has been a headline issue in the state: In July, a Philadelphia charter operator was charged in an alleged $6 million fraud scheme after an FBI investigation.)

One Republican who did not support the Senate bill that Gov. Corbett was awaiting was Rep. Mike Fleck, who represents a rural district and sits on the House education committee. He said he does not fundamentally oppose charters.

He introduced legislation over the summer that would prevent school districts from what he called overpaying charters by ensuring, for example, that brick-and-mortar and cyber charter schools without the same costs as traditional public schools don’t get the same payments. (Rep. James Roebuck, the top Democrat on the House education committee, introduced a similar bill in October.)

“You [created] two tiers of public education. ... And you didn’t hold them to the same level of accountability,” said Mr. Fleck of the charter environment in the state.

Part of the argument is whether charters, particularly brick-and-mortar schools, are at a funding disadvantage, or whether charters, and cyber charters in particular, essentially bleed money away from districts.

A state audit report in June said that charter and cyber charter funding “reform” would save taxpayers $365 million a year.

However, the Commonwealth Foundation, a pro-free-market think tank based in Harrisburg, Pa., responded that state Auditor General Jack Wagner’s study was flawed, since it studied the state’s spending on charters compared with other states’, not how much charters received per student compared with regular public schools.

‘Wild West’ No More?

Mr. Fayfich of the state charter school coalition argued that opponents are cherry-picking issues that favor traditional school districts and avoiding long-term solutions for all schools.

“We think a comprehensive review by an independent committee is a more fair, more just, more equitable way of doing this, as opposed to just saying, ‘We think cyber schools are being paid too much,’ ” he said.

But state commissions produce reports that often lead nowhere, said Steve Robinson, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

“Before we allow for this large expansion of charters by bringing in something like a statewide authorizer, we need to make sure that we’re spending taxpayer money on something that’s working,” he said.

Only seven states (Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Indiana, Maine, South Carolina, and Utah) and the District of Columbia have statewide charter authorizers, according to the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, which supports charters. Those authorizers have varying degrees of autonomy, a fact that is a sore spot for charter advocates.

“Most of the folks in elected office are leery of the accountability piece,” said Kathy Christie, a policy analyst at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. “They want to make sure that the schools approved are quality.”

She said that cyber charters in particular have made many state lawmakers particularly apprehensive. Charters’ academic performance in Pennsylvania drew attention this month, when the U.S. Department of Education told the state education department that it had prematurely used a set of rules for calculating adequate yearly progress, or AYP, for charters that differed from the rules for other public schools. Those rules allowed individual charters with a K-12 grade span to be judged as K-12 districts in the state.

The state school boards’ association said that although the state reported that 77 charters made AYP in the 2011-12 school year, 44 would have failed to do so if they had been judged without the rule change.

Tim Eller, a spokesman for state Secretary of Education Ronald Tomalis—who was appointed by Gov. Corbett—expressed confidence that the federal Education Department would let the rule stand.

Allowing good charters to expand further and making it easier to close bad ones will be a priority for Mr. Corbett’s administration in 2013, Mr. Eller also said.

“Charter reforms are necessary,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 2012 edition of Education Week as Practical Hurdles at Play in Pennsylvania Charter-Law Revamp

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Culturally Relevant Pedagogy to Advance Educational Equity
Schools are welcoming students back into buildings for full-time in-person instruction in a few short weeks and now is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and systems to build
Content provided by PowerMyLearning
Classroom Technology Webinar Making Big Technology Decisions: Advice for District Leaders, Principals, and Teachers
Educators at all levels make decisions that can have a huge impact on students. That’s especially true when it comes to the use of technology, which was activated like never before to help students learn
Professional Development Webinar Expand Digital Learning by Expanding Teacher Training
This discussion will examine how things have changed and offer guidance on smart, cost-effective ways to expand digital learning efforts and train teachers to maximize the use of new technologies for learning.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts California COVID-19 Closures Infringed Private School Parents' Rights, Federal Court Rules
A federal appeals court holds that the state's closure rules for private schools were not narrowly tailored to serve compelling interests.
4 min read
Image shows a courtroom and gavel.
imaginima/E+
Law & Courts 'I Just Want to Play.' Judge Halts W. Va. Law Barring Transgender Girls From Girls' Sports
Ruling for an 11-year-old transgender girl, the judge holds that the law likely violates the equal-protection clause and Title IX.
3 min read
Image of a gavel.
Marilyn Nieves/E+
Law & Courts Praying Coach v. District That Suspended Him: What's Next in Fight Over Religious Expression
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit declined to reconsider an earlier panel ruling that sided with the school district.
4 min read
Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy, center in blue, kneels and prays after his team lost to Centralia in Bremerton, Wash., on Oct. 16, 2015. Kennedy, who was suspended for praying at midfield after games, has filed a discrimination complaint on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015 with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission according to The Liberty Institute, a Texas-based law firm representing the coach.
Joe Kennedy, center in blue, kneels and prays after a game in October 2015 when he was the assistant football coach at Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Wash. In a long-running legal fight, Kennedy contends he has First Amendment free-speech and free-exercise-of-religion rights to express his Christian faith while on the job. The case is likely headed back to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Lindsey Wasso/The Seattle Times via AP
Law & Courts Appeals Court Again Backs Transgender Student, But on Narrower Grounds Amid Signs of Rift
A federal appeals panel removed a holding for student Drew Adams based on Title IX, perhaps to ward off a rehearing by the full court.
4 min read
Image of a gavel.
Marilyn Nieves/E+