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Donna Cooper is the executive director of Public Citizens for Children & Youth (Photo: Paul Jablow)

Paul Jablow / The Notebook

Petition calls for Pa. charter appeal board to cease operating, pending new appointees

“We’ve got local control, but we are still at risk of a state board overriding our decisions,” said Donna Cooper, director of an advocacy group.

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

A petition calls for the Pennsylvania Charter Appeal Board (CAB) to suspend voting until Democratic Gov. Wolf has appointed new members. The board, which has the authority to reverse local school districts’ decisions to deny new charter schools or close existing charters, is still filled with appointees of former Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican who lost to Wolf in November 2014. The sitting CAB members’ terms have all expired.

Wolf campaigned against Corbett in part by attacking the Republican incumbent’s record on public education, which tended to favor charter schools. For example, Corbett cut funding for the state’s program to partially reimburse public schools for money spent renovating or constructing buildings, but left in place the partial reimbursement for charter school rent.

Public education advocates are frustrated with Wolf for not replacing Corbett’s CAB appointees. One of those advocacy organizations, Public Citizens for Children & Youth, is now circulating a petition that demands that Wolf place a moratorium on all proceedings of the six-seat appeal board until Wolf has made new appointments. The board currently has five members; one seat is vacant.

Last month, Carolyn Dumaresq, former acting education secretary under Corbett, applied to open a charter school in Harrisburg, but was turned down by the local school board in a unanimous vote. Now Dumaresq is appealing the decision to the CAB, and none of the members would have to recuse themselves, even though all of them are Dumaresq’s former colleagues, according to the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.

Impact on school districts

This appeal board is particularly important for Philadelphia, where half the charter schools in the state operate. The School Reform Commission, which governed the District until July, approached the evaluation of new charter proposals with an assumption that denial would trigger costly, lengthy – and ultimately successful – appeals to the CAB by the applicant. The Board of Education, which has governed the District since July, seemed to uphold this reasoning back in December in its vote to renew the charter of Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School so that it can operate through 2020-21.

But in a historic vote last month, the school board reversed course and denied all three new charter school applications. So the Philly school board may find itself before the state appeal board more often going forward.

The current appeal board has three members with ties to the state’s charter school industry and one who served on the boards of various Catholic schools, but none with resumes that show they have worked for or with public schools in the state.

Donna Cooper was secretary of policy for Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, and she is now the executive director of Public Citizens for Children & Youth. She called for a more “balanced” board with representatives of both school districts and charters.

“Clearly a [Charter Appeal Board] made up of all Corbett appointees is likely to have a very different perspective than the newly appointed school board,” Cooper said. “That means more political perspectives.”

The state legislature created the appeal board in 1997, along with the charter law. The appeal board was supposed to ensure that local school boards were complying with the charter law in their decisions, but that law is vague and its interpretation is fiercely debated by legal experts.

Current members have interpreted the charter school law to mean that a school district cannot deny new charter applications because expansion would worsen its financial condition. Other lawyers argue that this interpretation is unconstitutional, in conflict with the state constitution’s mandate of a “thorough and efficient” system of public education for all students.

“School boards are created by state law, and they’re given the obligation under state law to maintain, on behalf of the state, the system of public education both through the power to impose taxes and the responsibility to oversee the expenditure of funds,” Cooper said. “That’s a pretty onerous legal obligation. School boards are also given the unique power to make those decisions on how to spend funds. Under the 1997 charter law, the state encroached on that power dramatically and said that a nonprofit entity that doesn’t like the decision of their local school board can go to this state entity [the appeals board] to change the local decision and redirect those funds, which might drive up the costs for local taxpayers in ways over which taxpayers have no control.”

Confirmation process

The governor is responsible for making more than 800 appointments to more than 100 boards and commission, and these nominations must then be confirmed by the state Senate. But Wolf has not so much as nominated anyone for the appeal board.

The spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education said the governor would make these appointments “in the near future” and noted that such appointments must be approved by the Republican-controlled state Senate, which has been strongly pro-charter school.

Cooper said that the Wolf administration would have some difficulty getting appointments through the Senate, but that it is not powerless.

“There’s little leverage that the Wolf administration has to encourage the Senate to act on its nominees. Thus if the [appeals board] were to grind to a halt, it would cause these parties to come to a table to reach an agreement. Certainly, the Senate as well as the administration have incentives to want the [appeal board] to operate,” Cooper said.

She said that even charter school proponents, like many in the state Senate, want the board to continue functioning so it can possibly reverse the decisions of the local school districts. “This would really force everybody’s hands.”

Cooper said the appeals board is one of the most powerful appointed boards in the state.

“Those of us in Philly, where there’s the most charters, do not have a school board with the power to raise local taxes,” Cooper said. Philadelphia is the only school district in the state without an elected board or the power to directly raise or lower the local taxes that fund the schools. “We’ve got local control, but we are still at risk of a state board overriding our decisions. And that’s troubling, especially given the current composition of that state board.”

The petition says that “given the gravity of the powers of the [appeal board], PCCY is calling for a moratorium on proceedings of the [board] until a full complement of CAB members are proposed by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate. Further, we call on the Governor and the Senate to immediately reach agreement on a balanced slate of nominees who will both protect the interests of our students and taxpayers and ensure those nominees are confirmed post haste.”

“I think it’s important that the [appeal board] be thorough and balanced, and have diverse points of view that can look at the law and look at the appeals to determine what’s in the best interests of students and taxpayers,” Cooper said.

The petition can be found here.

Susan Spicka, executive director of Education Voters PA, said that her organization “wholeheartedly” supports the moratorium.

“Voters throughout Pennsylvania elected Gov. Wolf in a landslide in large part because of his support for public education,” Spicka said in an email. “Gov. Wolf has a responsibility to Pennsylvanians to nominate a balanced slate of appointees.

“The Senate should then approve Wolf’s CAB nominees without obstruction or drama. Voters certainly didn’t send their state senators to Harrisburg in the hopes that they would do the bidding of the charter school industry by stripping control from their locally-elected school boards over district decisions and finances.”