Law & Courts

Practical Hurdles at Play in Pa. Charter-Law Stumble

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 30, 2012 5 min read
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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

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