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Senate Could Vote Soon on Charter School Plan

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Natasha Lindstrom, Bucks County Courier Times

HARRISBURG — The state Senate is set to vote as early as this month on the latest proposal to overhaul Pennsylvania’s 16-year-old charter school law.

Tension between the state’s charter system and traditional public schools has intensified as charter schools have proliferated and overall education funding has dropped, with an estimated 119,000 students enrolled in nearly 180 brick-and-mortar and cyber charters in Pennsylvania.

The push for reforms has been further fueled by high-profile corruption scandals, with Nick Trombetta, the former CEO of the Midland-based Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, now facing up to 100 years in prison for allegedly scheming to steal and hide millions of public dollars.

This past fall, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai cited charter school reform as a top priority, and Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi is a co-sponsor of the bill that now appears to have the most legislative momentum, Senate Bill 1085.

“You’re sort of broken on both ends in Pennsylvania: You have challenges of the replication and growth of high-performance schools that would add value at the same time that you have an inability to effectively oversee some problematic operators of schools,” said Alex Medler, vice president for policy and advocacy for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. “This bill is trying to fix both of those things.”

SB 1085, by Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-13, West Lampeter, is an 89-page omnibus bill that would enact a wide range of reforms to the ways charter schools win approval, are held accountable and get funded. It has pulled ahead of a competing proposal that cleared the House in late September as the front-runner to advance this session.

“By making every dollar count and implementing reforms across the board, I believe this legislative package puts to its best possible use the practical experience we have with charter schools over the last decade and a half,” Smucker, who represents parts of Lancaster and York counties, said in a statement.

Gov. Tom Corbett made advancing comprehensive charter school reforms a cornerstone of his first-term agenda, though several attempts have fallen flat thus far. The governor has not yet weighed in on the latest legislative proposals — but plenty of interest groups have voiced their concerns.

Universities as charter authorizers

The most contentious piece of SB 1085 is a provision that would enable four-year universities to become authorizers of new charter schools. Currently only local school districts can approve brick-and-mortar charter schools, and the state Department of Education authorizes cyber charters, which teach students online.

Under SB 1085, university authorizers must be based in the same geographical region where the charter school will operate and have a degree-granting college of education, among other requirements. Authorizers would be expected to evaluate charter school operators based on “objective data” and nationally recognized principles and standards of quality, “including but not limited to” those of the NACSA, which sets best practices for charter operators around the country.

“Universities already have the resources to provide the kind of oversight necessary to hold charter schools to a high standard of accountability,” Smucker said. “My legislation simply gives them the ability to put those resources to use.”

Opponents to the provision, including teachers unions and several advocacy groups that champion traditional neighborhood schools, say that university authorizers would strip the democracy out of the process, by placing authorization in the hands of college officials who aren’t held accountable directly to taxpayers.

The American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania and the Education Law Center are among groups that have blasted the bill for allowing the “unchecked expansion” of charter schools at the expense of the state’s already cash-strapped traditional schools.

But pro-charter school advocates argue that all too often, local school boards accept or reject proposed charters based on political reasons, rather than the merits of school plans. Some local school boards may be ill-equipped at vetting applicants, and others may simply want to squash any potential competition.

Those in favor of university authorizers say some of the nation’s best charter schools are overseen by institutions of higher education, including the State University of New York’s Charter School Institute, which oversees 125 charter schools in New York state, and Central Michigan University’s Center for Charter Schools, which has approved 59 charter schools in Michigan. Thirteen states now allow universities to approve charter school applications, Smucker said.

“The state authorities, quite frankly, are more likely to turn down a charter school than the district,” said Medler, of NACSA. “Small districts have the highest approval rates – either they don’t have the tools to know it was a bad application, or those same boards are subject to political pressure from people saying, ‘We really want this school.’”

There’s also debate over how to regulate university authorizers to ensure they’re approving charters that perform highly and revoking ones that don’t.

The Washington, D.C.-based Center for Education Reform, a pro-charter schools research group, has concerns about legislators making the requirements too onerous to incentivize Pennsylvania colleges to participate. In several states, legislation has granted higher education institutions the right to authorize charter schools but no universities have stepped up to do so.

“SUNY would not have become a model had they not had the authority and the autonomy to create their own structure, their own performance metrics and their own standards for schools,” said Kara Kerwin, president of The Center for Education Reform.

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers, a think tank in Chicago, supports universities as authorizers but warns that designating too many charter school authorizers can be just as bad – or worse – than not having enough.

“If they open too many authorizers, the effort to police the bad schools will be undercut,” Medler said. “You want to have one or more quality authorizers that aren’t the local district that will reject it for political reasons, but not so many that a bad apple can find someone willing to approve them.”

Funding feuds

Under Act 22 of 1997, the law that ushered in Pennsylvania’s first charter schools, school districts make payments to charter schools based on the amount the districts spend per pupil, minus a series of deductions accounting for district expenses on transportation, facilities, debt service and a few other areas. That means the amount that charter schools get per pupil varies widely by district. Because most charter schools enroll students from multiple districts, they end up getting paid different amounts per student.

The 18-member advisory commission proposed by SB 1085 would be charged with recommending a new funding formula for charter schools by Aug. 31. The House bill called for a similar type of commission to report its findings by March.

“It is time we base our funding formula on actual costs,” Smucker said in a statement. “The commission will help us determine those costs and provide a fuller picture for moving forward.”

But SB 1085 would enact several funding changes immediately, including a 5-percent, across-the-board cut to cyber charters only. Cyber school advocates argue that’s an arbitrary funding grab that would punish all cyber charters based on the alleged fiscal mismanagement of a few bad actors.

“We say study the funding first, and then decide,” said Jenny Bradmon, executive director of Pennsylvania Families for Public Cyber Charter Schools.

Like House Bill 618, the competing Senate proposal aims to correct the so-called “pension double-dip.” Yet some lawmakers and advocates have said the math used to do so in both bills hasn’t quite added up.

Bob Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, acknowledges that charter schools get overpaid for pensions; currently charter schools get 100 percent reimbursement from school districts, plus another 50 percent reimbursement from the state. But Fayfich argues that HB 618 would under-fund cyber charter pension costs by 50 percent, and that the latest version of SB 1085 would under-fund pension costs for all charters by 20 percent.

SB 1085 would eliminate the state’s pension reimbursement to charter schools and allow school districts to deduct 30 percent of their own employee pension costs when calculating how much they pay charter schools. The Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials estimates that SB 1085 could save school districts $32 million in 2014-15, plus another $18 million through the 5-percent cut to cyber charters.

“It will slightly reduce our tuition costs to charter schools, but it appears to benefit the state most by reducing their contribution to the retirement system and continuing our indirect payment of their retirement costs,” said Victor Raskovsky, business manager for the Beaver Area School District in western Pennsylvania.

Ethics and transparency

The least controversial components to charter school law changes – measures to strengthen rules regarding ethics, accountability and transparency – occupy the bulk of both the House and Senate proposals. In fact, Fayfich estimates that about 85 percent of SB 1085 and HB 618 are nearly identical.

The ethics measures including provisions prohibiting charter school administrators from sitting on school boards and making it illegal for charter school board members to be compensated. Lawmakers, school officials from charters and non-charters and advocacy groups on both sides of the debate have all backed such rules.

“Pennsylvania Cyber (Charter School) has definitely been at the forefront of advocating for those kinds of reforms,” said Christina Zarek, spokesman for the school whose former CEO now faces federal tax fraud charges. “Clearly we would be behind anything that allows for more transparency, higher standards and accountability, because I think that’s a good, holistic approach for all the schools involved.”

SB 1085 has already been revised several times through amendments passed by appropriations and education committees, and even lawmakers who advanced it out of committee have said they want to see additional changes before the bill makes it to final passage.

“It’s a work in progress; it’s headed in the right direction,” Kerwin said. “It didn’t go far enough to shore up the ability of universities to become a truly independent authorizer in this state.”

The tweaks to the bill have not satisfied its staunchest opponents.

“Every community in the Commonwealth should be aware that any temporary fixes the bill attempts to provide will quickly be trumped by the bill’s other provisions — from the addition of private, unaccountable authorizers to the unchecked expansion of existing, poorly performing charters,” the Education Law Center wrote in a Dec. 4 analysis of the bill. “Those provisions and others will bring long-term harm to even our wealthiest and highest performing school districts.”

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted 15-11 on Nov. 19 to send the amended version of Senate Bill 1085 to the Senate floor, where it now awaits a vote.

The Senate has seven session days in January, starting with Tuesday. If approved by the Senate, SB 1085 must also clear the House before final passage.