Wolf turns focus to charter school reform plan

Gov. Tom Wolf at a press conference about charter school reform

Gov. Tom Wolf at a press conference about charter school reform Photo from Commonwealth Media Services

As part of Gov. Tom Wolf’s 2021 budget proposal, the Democratic governor is floating an overhaul of the state’s charter school system, particularly in terms of funding and oversight. 

Wolf, who has made a few stops across the state to promote the plan, says it could save school districts $229 million per year. But while Wolf says his sweeping charter school reform agenda would update an antiquated, flawed law, charter school advocates believe that Wolf’s ideas would be a devastating blow to charter schools across the state. 

But what exactly does Wolf’s plan entail? It starts with the funding mechanisms for charter schools — proposing an update to how cyber charter schools, as well as special education at charter schools, are funded. 

Wolf’s charter plan would run special education funding through the state’s special education funding formula, as opposed to the current mechanism that requires school districts to assume that all charter schools across the state have 16% of students in need of special education. The Wolf Administration estimates that school districts could save $99 million annually under the change.

Wolf’s proposal also suggests that lawmakers set a single statewide tuition rate for cyber charter schools of $9,500, which could save districts an annual amount of $130 million, according to the administration. 

Charter school advocates, however, say that the savings promoted by the Wolf Administration are effectively funding cuts for the state’s charter schools. 

“What Governor Wolf continues to tout as ‘cost savings’ for school districts is nothing more than an attack on families who have exercised their right to choose a public charter school for their children,” Lenny McAllister, the CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said in a statement. “It harms those already hurting and helps those that already have billions in resources. Robbing Peter to (pay) Paul is not a ‘cost saving’ and this approach is not helping Pennsylvania families overcome the lingering effects the pandemic has had on education.”

Another component of Wolf’s charter reform plan centers around oversight and accountability, two things Wolf says are absent from the state’s current charter school law.

“We need to make changes to the way we fund and the way we oversee charter schools,” Wolf said Wednesday at a press conference. “The lack of transparency and accountability in our charter law makes understanding and remedying the problems we have really difficult. Limited oversight of charter schools allowed under the law is what makes it difficult to control costs and quality.”

Wolf’s charter school reform proposal would subject charter school leaders and trustees to state ethics requirements; require schools to have anti-nepotism policies; create new performance standards for charter schools and limit cyber charter enrollment until the school’s quality improves.

Wolf’s plan is outlined in bills from state Sen. Lindsey Williams and state Rep. Joe Ciresi, though the bills have yet to be advanced out of their respective committees. 

But Wolf, in his two recent stops in northeast and southeast Pennsylvania, said legislators need to take up the bills in order to protect taxpayers and hold charter schools accountable.

“My plan protects taxpayers from being overcharged for charter school costs, it protects students by holding low-performing charter schools accountable and it protects public trust by making for-profit charter school companies accountable to the taxpayers,” Wolf said. “In fact, my plan would save about $395 million dollars every year, while still ensuring that every charter school has the funding it needs to provide a good education to students.”