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PA Lawmakers Must Oppose Proposed “Reform” of Charter School Law

Statement by Jeanne Allen, President, The Center for Education Reform

CER Press Release
Washington, D.C.
October 15, 2012

“Amendments to Pennsylvania’s charter school law, negotiated in recent days and awaiting legislative approval, would be a serious setback for charter school educators, leaders and parents.

“SB 1115, a bill originally designed to improve and expand quality charter schools, now gives the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE), new, expanded powers over charter school finances and outcomes. Such a role for a state education department is unprecedented in states with strong charter laws. Pennsylvania charter schools are already held to the same standards as all other public schools yet they are accountable to their authorizers for meeting legal and financial requirements and performance milestones. When authorizers fail, it is time to reform the authorizing process, not give the PDE, which is already burdened by its current oversight duties, more regulatory power over schools that should be managed by better authorizers. Pennsylvania’s charter school law isn’t lacking in public accountability; it is lacking in the existence of strong authorizers.

“Yet authorizers in Pennsylvania — school districts — are often no better at managing charter schools than they are at managing traditional public schools. The issue facing lawmakers who are seeking to improve chartering is not to demand more state education agency oversight, but to create multiple authorizers. Multiple and independent authorizers which are the key to highly successful charter schools in 15 states have little oversight from their states’ education departments and give charter school parents and educators freedom from traditional bureaucracy to achieve performance successes that hamper success in too many traditional public schools. History and research have proven that strong authorizers serve the public good by fostering the creation of great public charter schools that serve children in need of options. Such charters are held to the highest financial and academic accountability requirements. Just today the Center released a model for states, The Essential Guide to Charter School Law: Model Legislation based on Experience and Practice, which provides a guidepost for lawmakers about how to make the connection between sound, independent authorizing and quality schools.

“The original charter reform proposal sponsored by Senators Anthony Hardy Williams (D-Philadelphia) and Jeffrey Piccola (R-Harrisburg) followed such practices, and by permitting state universities to authorize charter schools, would have put in motion the right formula for attacking issues that have arisen from bad school district authorizing.

“Instead of pursuing that course, some pro-charter groups believe that the current bill suits their needs, and that more oversight from the Pennsylvania Department of Education will somehow breed performance accountability, when we know that no school entity — not Harrisburg, not Philadelphia, not Pittsburgh and not a charter school — will deliver high academic performance just because they are told to do so.

“High-level legislative sources report that the Pennsylvania Education Association, the state’s teachers union which opposes the creation of independent, publicly accountable charter schools, is quietly voicing its support for the bill, as is the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

“Education Voters of Pennsylvania, a group that similarly opposes reforms out of the traditional system, posted this on their website today urging citizens to implement the proposal currently pending consideration. The group has argued that charters are funded unfairly (eg. they get local funds) and is opposed to additional authorizers that are known to breed quality charter schools. Says the group, ‘Tell your legislators that Pennsylvanians deserve a charter reform bill that implements critical funding reform and DOES NOT includes [sic] provisions for a statewide authorizer.’

“These endorsements, if nothing else, should give supporters pause.

“As the nation’s oldest and leading education reform group supporting the development of high quality and plentiful public charter schools, and having been at the front lines of the fight for the initial law, as well as working on improvements to that law over time, we respectfully urge Pennsylvania legislators to defer consideration on charter law amendments until they can fully understand the magnitude and impact of the proposed changes and are willing to bring real reforms that include multiple, independent, accountable authorizers to the charter table.”