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Urban district leaders protest proposed charter law changes, call for more funds

Superintendents, who have been meeting regularly to discuss strategy, say resources are their most critical issue and that charter amendments would weaken their oversight.

Dr. William Hite (left) and other urban superintendent call for more funding for urban schools in the Capitol Rotunda in Harrisburg on Monday May 13. (Photo: Dale Mezzacappa)

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

HARRISBURG – Leaders of 10 urban school districts in Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite, traveled to the State Capitol this week to oppose pending charter school legislation that they say would wreck their capacity to plan financially and weaken their ability to monitor charters’ performance.

The bills would restrict what information districts could seek from charter applicants, would squeeze the renewal process into 90 days, and would allow some charters to open in multiple locations without prior approval, among other changes.

As the leaders were talking, those bills sailed through the House Education Committee on a party-line vote, with Republicans in favor and Democrats against.

The school leaders, a group that included superintendents and school board members, stood in the Capitol Rotunda and said, as cameras rolled, that their paramount concern was securing additional state revenue for their districts. These laws, they said, would make it even harder to control spending, plan responsibly, and meet the needs of all students.

“We are asking for fiscal relief,” said Joseph Roy, superintendent of the Bethlehem School District. He was among 13 people representing 10 mostly urban and financially struggling districts across the state – Philadelphia, Greater Johnstown, Bethlehem, Pottstown, Allentown, Reading, Steelton-Highspire, Harrisburg, Southeast Delco, and York. These are also the districts where the state’s charter schools are concentrated.

Hite said the leaders had been meeting regularly to discuss how to press their case in Harrisburg.

Hite, who introduced the other officials, noted that 12 urban districts enroll 244,000 students, or one in seven across the state. Philadelphia alone has 203,000 – about one-third of them in charters.

“That means one of every seven future workers, business owners, leaders, and entrepreneurs who graduate from Pennsylvania’s public schools is in one of our classrooms today,” he said. “Pennsylvania’s economic future is directly tied to the quality of education we provide and the quality of education that Harrisburg is willing to invest in.”

The superintendents were picking up on the theme that Gov. Wolf focused on when he proposed his 2020 budget – creating the “strongest workforce in the nation.”

But that big-picture goal has been bogged down by legislators’ aversion to any new taxes, complicated by the intractable debate over charter policy. Harrisburg’s Republican leaders are big backers of charters and school choice, rather than additional resources, as the remedy for underfunded and under-performing schools. They have enacted large tax-credit programs for those who contribute to scholarship programs so that students can attend private and parochial schools.

In addition to more overall state aid and reform in how charters are funded, the superintendents asked for a significant investment in the renovation and modernization of school buildings through a state program called PlanCon, as well as an infusion of dollars to deal with immediate safety hazards. The General Assembly authorized PlanCon, but it zeroed out its funding stream in 2015-16.

High proportions of students in urban districts need special education, live in poverty, or don’t speak English as a first language. Yet these districts have less money per pupil than more affluent districts around them.

Increasingly in Pennsylvania, the burden for the high costs of meeting the needs of these students is falling on local taxpayers. Pennsylvania ranks 47th among the states in the proportion of revenue it contributes to education, at less than 40 percent. Nationally, the average for the state-local split is closer to half and half, with the federal government contributing a small share.

The General Assembly has repeatedly rejected Wolf’s request to tax the drilling of natural gas and use that revenue to significantly boost education spending, and the governor has scaled down his goals since taking office in 2015.

The charter bills are likely to come up for a vote in the House next month, at the same time that Wolf and the legislature are working out a budget. Wolf is calling for about $200 million in additional basic education aid, a relatively modest 3.28 percent increase on a more than $6 billion appropriation. Some hike will likely be adopted, but nothing along the lines of what the superintendents say is needed.

The district leaders agree that the 22-year-old charter law is ripe for revision. They support two of the four bills before the Education Committee, HB 355 and 358, which strengthen charter school ethics rules and conflict-of-interest standards and facilitate the dual enrollment of charter students in local colleges.

But they oppose HB 356 and HB 357. These bills would allow charter schools that have not agreed with their districts on enrollment caps to open multiple schools without seeking district approval. They also cede the authority over charter amendments – midterm changes to the school’s agreement with its district – to the state Charter Appeal Board. And they authorize a standard statewide application, prohibiting local districts from devising their own standards for charter operators and limiting the questions they can ask. Rules speeding up renewal applications would make it harder to close down schools that are low-performing.

Some version of these changes, long sought by charter groups, has been in the legislative hopper for years.

The legislation would, of course, have the biggest impact on Philadelphia, which has half the brick-and-mortar charter schools in the state – 87 of 155 – representing an enrollment of more than 60,000 students.

The bills, Hite said in a letter to Democratic House Whip Jordan A. Harris, “would limit the District’s ability to authorize high-quality charter schools and would adversely impact our hard-won, stable financial position.”

Board of Education President Joyce Wilkerson, in an interview, said that the bills “begin to erode everything we have worked so hard on in our effort to be a quality charter authorizer and in creating high-quality school choice for families.”

Roy, the Bethlehem superintendent, said at the Rotunda event: “We need the legislature to act to strengthen, not weaken district oversight of charter schools. We need legislation that will strengthen …districts’ ability to hold charters to the same high standards to which districts are held.”

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) and the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) sent letters to the committee members stating that the bills would take away control over taxpayer dollars from elected school boards.

PASBO said that the bills “both have the capacity to exacerbate the financial impact of charter school costs on school districts. While we have been neutral on some charter school reform proposals that have included some of the concepts in these bills in the past, without the corresponding meaningful funding relief for school districts that accompanied those components in prior sessions, we must oppose these bills.”

In the Education Committee hearing, Chairman Curtis Sonney (R-Erie) was firm about moving the bills as-is, but said he hopes to work on amendments with his Democratic colleagues before the final vote.

“It is my intention to ask for a vote on this package of bills [to] generate conversations we really need to have,” he said. “These are overwhelmingly bills that need to be moved and issues that need to be addressed. I’m hoping given a little more time we can clean these up a little bit and get more people on board.”

Sonney also said he planned to also deal with the funding issue – just not now.

“I realize money is not discussed in these bills, but it is absolutely my intention to get to those subjects,” he said.

Republican sponsors – mostly legislators from areas that don’t have charter schools – said that the bills were necessary to “level the playing field” between traditional district schools and charters, but Democrats objected on several grounds.

“I have a number of concerns. This promotes unaccountable charter growth and the back-door expansion of charter chains,” said Education Committee Minority Chair Rep. James Roebuck, who represents Philadelphia.

He said that HB 357, which lays out a process for amending charters that gives final say to the state Charter Appeal Board, “seems to indicate that any aspect of the charter could be changed through an amendment at any time, even immediately after getting a charter, which would defeat the purpose of the original application.”

Charters seeking significant change “should do so during the renewal period so districts can plan for these changes. I think the proposed legislation is very broad and would certainly exacerbate the financial impact of charter school costs, especially in Philadelphia where over half the charter schools are located.”

Rep. Steve McCarter, who is from Glenside, Montgomery County, spoke most vociferously against charters. He even raised questions about the two bills that the superintendents and several Democrats supported.

The ethics bill, HS 355, didn’t go far enough, he said. He proposed amendments that would, among other things, require for-profit charter management companies to open their books to public scrutiny through Right-to-Know laws.

The amendment was defeated on a party-line vote, 14-10.

Ana Myers, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said that her organization was willing to negotiate about the legislation, especially the issue of how charter schools are funded.

“I think we all agree there is a funding problem,” Myers said in an interview. “Funding equity needs to be addressed.” She suggested the formation of a special commission.

However, there isn’t agreement on where the funding problem lies. Charters feel they don’t get their fair share of public dollars – a function of the state-imposed funding formula – while districts are concerned that charters aren’t being held accountable for the money they do receive, especially for special education students. That per-pupil amount can run three times the figure for regular education students, with no relationship to the severity of the disability and no requirement that the money be spent on the needs of the students in special education.

In calculating the subsidy for regular education students, the state omits some costs that charters don’t incur, including adult education, transportation, and services that districts are required to provide to non-public schools.

But the formula isn’t fair, charter proponents contend.

“Charters get 25 percent less per student than district students,” said Myers.

Some charter advocates in Philadelphia say that the formula makes charter students “second-class citizens.”

Because of this lingering dispute over how charters get their money, their advocates generally do not join in a call for Harrisburg to significantly increase its aid to school districts, which would result in more money for both traditional and charter schools. They are not convinced that they would get what they consider their fair share.

“People are saying they want to get new basic education money for all, OK. But in the same breath, they want to change funding for charter school special education,” said Larry Jones, founder of Richard Allen Charter Schools and vice president of the statewide coalition.

The charter proponents say the amendments to the law approved by the Education Committee are necessary to protect charters against unfair treatment.

The charter law hasn’t been significantly revised or updated since its passage in 1997.

Pennsylvania “is recognized as having one of the worst charter school laws in the country,” said Wilkerson, the Philadelphia school board president. “We’ve tried to work with that and create a framework and a process that begins to ensure that our children are being provided with quality education. We’re not there yet. So many parts of the current law are defective, and all these amendments just make it worse.”

The school board, she said, is trying to look holistically at all student needs when considering charter applications, but that is hard to do under the current law and political atmosphere around charters. Philadelphia just returned to local governance last year after 17 years of state control under the School Reform Commission.

The Board of Education’s committee on academic achievement is meeting today at 5 p.m. to discuss charter expansion requests, including a proposal by Global Leadership Academy to start a high school. Under current law, school boards are expected to evaluate each application on its merits without looking at the larger picture. That is untenable, Wilkerson said, using Global Leadership’s application as an example.

“Global Leadership does some good work, but when we’re trying to operate one school system, if we go in and authorize another charter, we may be forcing a traditional public school or even another charter to close,” she said. “Until that conversation is joined, it ends up being a very disjointed conversation. We don’t have the framework in thinking about the two segments, district and charter, and how they sit together. It makes all these conversations difficult.”

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