Harrisburg – A state legislative move to reform Pennsylvania’s charter school law – something many have said is the worst such law in the nation – is inches away from the legislative completion line, but that doesn’t mean everyone is on board.
This is especially true when it comes to the negative impacts the legislation could have on Philadelphia.
The proposal embodied in House Bill 97, as passed by the state Senate in a rare Sunday night vote in early July, includes a number of reforms like standardizing the application process used by entities seeking a charter; increasing the size of the Charter School Appeal Board; approving multiple charter school organizations that allow more than one charter school to organize under a single board of trustees while ensuring school districts have the authority to authorize and renew the charter; creating an academic performance matrix and teacher evaluation system used by traditional public schools; enhancing truancy laws; and giving charter schools the right of first refusal on the purchase of unused public school buildings.
The bill also creates a commission to study how to reform the funding of charter schools for an 18-month period.
A controversial $27 million cut to cyber charter school funding that was inserted in an earlier House-drafted version of the bill was removed by the Senate in an earlier vote under the auspices of giving the commission a chance to report on how to reform funding, but sources close to the issue noted that some Republicans were opposed to a majority of the cut’s freed-up funds being directed to the School District of Philadelphia – something pro-school-choice lawmakers have contended is a poor investment.
Over the course of the bill’s consideration in both chambers, Democrats have taken shots at amending the proposal, seeking to require things like transparency regarding for-profit charter school management companies and requiring charter schools to send certified attendance records to the sending school district – all to no avail.
As the bill passed the Senate Sunday by a vote of 26-23, some lawmakers representing the Philadelphia region indicated that the legislation is not the right way to advance charter school reform.
“It’s unsustainable and unworkable, particularly when there’s no money going to charter school reimbursement,” said Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia). “It makes things murkier and more difficult to do what we need to do.”
A similar sentiment was earlier echoed by Rep. James Roebuck (D-Philadelphia), who is the Minority Chairman of the House Education Committee.
“Unfortunately, the House Republican charter school bill, House Bill 97, is the equivalent of taking a leaky roof and drilling more holes in it,” he said. “We need to fix the problems with Pennsylvania's outdated charter school law, not create more. Not all changes are ‘reform.’”
The legislation is also opposed by a host of education organizations like the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, and the Pennsylvania State Education Association – the largest teachers union in Pennsylvania.
“PSBA continues to strongly believe that charter schools should be held to the same standards of academic performance, accountability and transparency that local school districts must uphold. We have always been hopeful that an omnibus charter bill could address these core issues, but like previous attempts, House Bill 97 falls short,” said PSBA executive director Nathan Mains in a letter to senators opposing the bill.
“We encourage the Senate to apply changes that can assist all public schools in the commonwealth – all schools, charter and traditional, should be required to use the same methods to evaluate educators, be held to the same ethical standards and adhere to the same measures of accountability.”
The School District of Philadelphia also voiced opposition to the legislation in advocacy efforts before the state Legislature.
“Our very own school district in Philadelphia has written a very detailed document, section-by-section, pointing out certain areas of the legislation that are good but, given the overwhelming number of charter schools in the School District of Philadelphia – probably 35 to 40 percent of students in Philadelphia are in charter schools is noteworthy – noting their extreme concern about this legislation,” said Hughes when the legislation advanced from the Senate Appropriations Committee Saturday.
“I think their indication is they are requesting a no-vote, but are asking us to work with the chairman of the other party to see how compromise can be achieved.”
The School District of Philadelphia did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
On the other side, charter schools in Pennsylvania have been vocal about their support for the legislation.
“HB 97 is an important reform bill for the public charter school community as it seeks to strengthen charter school accountability through greater financial disclosures and increased transparency,” stated Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools board chair Toni Rath.
“We support these measures as they provide parents with additional information when choosing the best school for their child. The charter law has not been significantly revised since it was enacted 20 years ago and the time for reforms is now.”
With the legislation returning to the House, the future is anything less than certain.
While inches away from heading to the governor, sources in the House indicate that the chamber is ready to re-amend the legislation to reinsert the $27 million cut to cyber charter schools – something supporters in that chamber have labeled a priority.
Should that be the case, the legislation could end up in a game of legislative ping-pong where it bounces back and forth between the chambers without any final resolution – a fate met by similar reform attempts over the last several sessions.
As of Monday, the House is not expected to take up the legislation prior to their summer recess.