Harrisburg – For the last several sessions, lawmakers in Pennsylvania have tried – and failed – to enact comprehensive reforms to the commonwealth’s charter school system.
This week, that Sisyphean effort was restarted by the House moving along House Bill 97, vehicle legislation sponsored by Rep. Mike Reese (R-Westmoreland) that he said was akin to legislation that nearly got across the finish line last session in the form of House Bill 530.
According to Reese – the House member whose name has been attached to charter school reform the last two legislative sessions – the bill is aimed at leveling the playing field between charter schools (both brick-and-mortar and cyber) and traditional public schools.
“The goal of this legislation is straightforward: to improve school choice by strengthening the laws under which charter schools operate while, at the same time, creating immediate savings to our traditional public schools that pay for our charters and ultimately creating a level playing field for our traditional public schools and our charter schools by requiring them to play by the same rules when it comes to ethics, accountability and transparency,” he told members of the House Education Committee when the bill advanced from there on Tuesday.
“This law…was groundbreaking 20 years ago, but has become very outdated,” he said of the existing statute.
Noted reforms in the bill include 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.
Additionally, the legislation was said to save traditional public schools $27 million annually through savings in the cyber-charter school process by adding some deductions – based on the tax assessment and tax collection services done by a school district and 30 percent of the costs associated with the operation and maintenance of plant services as well as the actual amount a district of residence paid to a cyber-charter school for the previous year – to a report schools use to take deductions off the per-pupil cost before sending along to a cyber school.
The bill also creates a commission to study how to reform the funding of charter schools.
The legislation enjoyed bipartisan support in committee, with two Democrats breaking party lines to vote in support of it.
One of those Democrats, freshman Rep. Jared Solomon (D-Philadelphia), said that despite some concerns, it is important to get a vehicle bill moving to bring reforms to charter schools in Pennsylvania.
“I think there are provisions that make a lot of sense – the accountability measures, the auditing measure, the standardization of the process makes a lot of sense – but we have a lot of work to do,” he said.
Others, however, did not see it that way.
Committee Minority Chairman James Roebuck (D-Philadelphia) said that while there are some good reforms in the bill, those positives are far outweighed by the harm that would be caused by other provisions that further separate how charter schools and traditional public schools are treated by the state.
For example, Roebuck noted, the legislation caps the surplus charter schools are allowed to maintain – a good reform in his opinion – but sets that cap at a percentage rate higher than that allowed for traditional public schools.
He also expressed concern over the provisions expanding the state oversight board for charter schools, which he said would allow the board to be “stacked” with charter school representatives. Additionally, he noted that there is no requirement – unlike one applied to traditional public schools – that advertisements for charter and cyber-charter schools be noted as being paid for by taxpayer dollars and are not free.
“My overall concern is that House Bill 97 widens the divide between charter schools and traditional public school systems; it furthers the movement toward creating two separate school systems that are clearly unequal and treated differently,” he said.
The bill’s movement had those in the education field mobilizing against it, with the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and Education Voters of Pennsylvania releasing statements in opposition to the legislation in its current form.
Several Democrats in the House on Wednesday unveiled a package of bills they said would bring equality to the public school system by providing parity between traditional and charter schools, many of which were offered as amendments to House Bill 97 when it went through the amendment process on the House Floor.
Despite their zeal for charter reform and to, in their opinion, bring more parity between charter and traditional public schools, the Democrats’ effort to amend the bill was met with mixed results – only two of the eight proposals in the package gained enough support to be included in House Bill 97.
The first, a proposal from Rep. Mike Schlossberg (D-Lehigh), would require charter and cyber-charter schools to note that advertisements and transportation costs are paid for by taxpayers.
“No charter or cyber-charter school is free; taxpayers pay for these schools, like any other,” he said of his amendment. “Taxpayers deserve to be given credit for footing the bill.”
The amendment was incorporated into House Bill 97 by a vote of 186-1.
Another part of the package winning approval was a proposal by freshman Rep. Maureen Madden (D-Monroe) that would require school districts and charter schools to transfer student records within 10 days of enrollment and that such transfer should also include attendance records, a fix to a problem she said has been occurring in her district, Philadelphia, and elsewhere across the state.
Other parts of the package offered as amendments on the floor Wednesday were not as successful.
A proposal by Roebuck that he said would end conflicts of interest in tax-funded payments for charter school leases originally won approval, but failed to gain enough support after Republicans insisted on reconsidering the vote tally.
Efforts to bring parity to caps on budget surpluses between traditional public schools and charter schools were also met with opposition as it was noted House Bill 97 places caps on the currently unregulated charter budget surpluses, though higher than traditional public schools.
Also, a concept introduced by Rep. Mark Longietti (D-Mercer) to bring transparency and lower fees paid to charter school management companies failed to gain majority support.
Though not part of the package, an amendment offered by Rep. Solomon to require six public hearings before a charter can be granted won support and was incorporated into the bill.
House Bill 97 could come up for a final vote in the House as soon as next week.
Jason Gottesman is the Harrisburg bureau chief for The PLS Reporter, a non-partisan, online news site devoted to covering Pennsylvania government.