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Charter law voted out of committee, revisions likely

Shown is the state capitol building in Harrisburg.
Photo: Kevin McCorry/WHYY

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The Pennsylvania House Education Committee voted out of committee Tuesday a charter school reform bill that makes significant changes in what the state’s Auditor General called “the worst charter school law in the United States.”

The bill, HB 97, the subject of fierce lobbying, is likely to be further revised as it moves forward. Legislators, including its sponsor, Rep. Mike Reese (R-Westmoreland), called it “a work in progress” as they continue to face detailed concerns from both charter proponents and skeptics about different parts of the legislation.

It passed out of the committee by a vote of 17-10, largely but not entirely on party lines, with most Republicans in favor and most Democrats opposed. Since Philadelphia has half the charter schools statewide, any changes would have the biggest impact here.

The charter law has not been significantly revised since it was enacted 20 years ago. During that time, more than 160 charter schools have been established across the state, educating more than 130,000 students.

Some 70,000 of them are in Philadelphia, which has more than 80 charter schools, including 21 that are converted District schools known as Renaissance Charters.

Districts have complained for the most part that charters drain funds from traditional schools while not significantly improving educational outcomes for the most at-risk students. But charter believers, including most of the Harrisburg’s Republican leadership, see the independently operated schools as a way to break a monopoly of mediocrity, or outright failure, in districts hidebound by union rules and bureaucracy.

While this new bill includes some provisions imposing more transparency on charter operators and boards, it imposes limits on what districts can consider in whether or not to renew a charter. If a charter is meeting academic standards, any operational and financial irregularities could not be invoked as a reason to close it down.

It also extends the initial period of a charter from three to five years and, for charters that have met state academic standards, extends subsequent reviews from five to 10 years. It prohibits districts from doing annual reviews of the kind done by Philadelphia’s recently beefed up charter office.

Philadelphia officials said they saw improvements over prior proposed charter legislation, HB 530, which would have, among other things, created a statewide authorizer that could approve charters without the host district having any say. Philadelphia had protested that this would decimate the District’s finances if it could not control charter growth.

“While we see productive changes to some parts of the charter law in HB97, we remain concerned about several provisions in the bill and how they may impact the ability to authorize quality charter schools in Pennsylvania and in Philadelphia,” the District said in a statement.

Spokesman Lee Whack was a bit more specific: “We are concerned that many of the nationally accepted authorizing practices that the School District of Philadelphia has implemented over the last three years could be undermined. Our No. 1 concern is ensuring high quality charter seats and right now this bill right does not focus on quality.”

The School Reform Commission’s charter school office produces Annual Charter Evaluations as well as yearly School Progress Reports for charter schools. Its renewal (or nonrenewal) recommendations contain detailed information on academic, operational, and financial metrics.

In another issue of concern to the District, the new bill also leaves somewhat ambiguous whether it and other districts will be able to impose caps on charters to control enrollment growth.

One section of the bill that says charters without a written agreement on caps can operate “at more than one location” could be a loophole allowing charters to enroll more students without prior authorization, say some who have studied the bill.

The District “is committed to supporting legislation that would expand high achieving charter seats, and create a high performing system of quality educational choices for parents and students,” the statement said. “A system that can benefit both charter schools and authorizers. We will continue to work with legislative leaders to not only improve HB97 but also bring about positive reforms to modernize Pennsylvania’s charter school law.”

Advocates on all sides have weighed in extensively on what they see as pros and cons of the bill.

The Education Law Center sent an open letter to members of the Education Committee urging them to vote against the bill, and an email urging citizens to call their legislators.

“This bill falls short because, like its predecessors, it fails to adequately address the significant problems presented by charter schools across the Commonwealth with regard to equity, transparency, and quality of education,” the letter reads. “This bill should not be passed without major revision.”

Ed Law Center specifically cited the limitations on what districts could consider in deciding whether or not to renew a school’s charter and a requirement that districts sell unused schools to a charter organization that makes an offer.

Proponents of the legislation, such as the conservative Commonwealth Foundation, urged that the bill be passed, contending that it strengthens accountability for charter operators and board members rather than weakening it.

“HB 97 strengthens charter school accountability,” James Paul wrote for the Commonwealth Foundation. “The bill mandates greater financial disclosure, increases transparency, and prevents potential conflicts of interest between school administrators and vendors.”

But the Commonwealth Foundation isn’t entirely happy, partly because it wanted the creation of a statewide authorizer. And it objects to a provision that would reduce payments to cyber charter schools.

“Unfortunately HB 97 imposes cuts on cyber charters and fails to create an independent charter school authorizer,” wrote Paul, before applauding the new matrix for evaluating charter schools.If passed, House Bill 97 will amend the Public School Code of 1949 to create evaluation criteria for charter schools separate from what is used to evaluate public schools.

Education Law Center criticized the proposed evaluation system for only containing academic metrics—meaning administrative failures like financial mismanagement and noncompliance with regulations would no longer be major factors considered in the process of reviewing a charter.

“If charter school educators and administrators are not held to the same standards of accountability to comply with state-developed requirements, families cannot accurately compare the school options available,” the group’s letter reads.

The letter points out that the new bill does nothing the address issues of inequity that could arise between charters and its public school district.

“Any matrix should include criteria that evaluates, relative to the authorizing school district, how equitably a charter school serves students in poverty, students with the full range of disabilities, English Learner students, and students experiencing homelessness and foster care.”

It also called for a change in the funding system, which now gives charters a specific amount per regular education student and a much higher amount for special education students without any differentiation among those with mild or severe disabilities.

ELC cited “perverse financial incentives” in the current funding system that can result in children with severe disabilities not getting all the services they need, while students with mild disabilities could be “overserved,” which the ELC found to be the case in a recent analysis of Philadelphia charters.

The bill would create a commission to make recommendations for changes in how charters are funded.

Education Voters PA is also concerned about equity, saying that the law “should include language that requires charters to equitably enroll the most at-risk students in their communities and allow districts to hold charters accountable for not doing so and for “pushing out” students through “harsh discipline policies.”

The ELC applauded the bill’s creation of a standard charter application form to be used throughout the state, but criticized language that would prevent districts from adding any additional terms or requiring any additional information about a charter’s applicants.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association had a similar complaint. “School districts should have the ability to amend or otherwise weigh in on the contents of the standard application,” it wrote on their website. The bill would prevent the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) from amending the standard application or tailoring it to district needs.

The ELC proposed that local school boards should have the autonomy to determine what information their charters give them, since “it is impossible for the [PDE] to foresee the unique needs of each community.”

The ELC also slammed the bill’s requirement that a school district must sell district buildings no longer in active use to charter schools that make an offer as “excessive overreach” by the state. The criticism asserted that these decisions should remain with local governing bodies like school boards, and Philadelphia’s SRC, since it involves “taxpayer’s property.” And it didn’t like the provisions doubling the standard renewal period for charters that meet academic standards.

Nor did PSBA, which also questioned the prohibition on annual charter reviews.

“If accountability is the focus of this legislation, these provisions raise concerns,” the PSBA wrote on their website. “The change to not review charters on a regular basis as current law dictates, and to limit that review takes the Commonwealth further away from accountability.”

Jonathan Cetel of PennCAN, a lobbying group that supports charter expansion and parental choice, said HB 97 reflects “years of compromise and negotiation” and contends that “all the controversial provisions have been stripped away so that all that remains are commonsense policies that meet the needs of both charter schools and traditional public schools. While this bill does not capture all that is necessary to create the conditions for high-quality charters to grow, it is an essential first step towards modernizing Pennsylvania’s outdated charter law.”

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