Capitol Beat

Wolf’s charter school regulations face opposition from GOP lawmakers

Tom Wolf speaks at a February press conference on school funding

Tom Wolf speaks at a February press conference on school funding Commonwealth Media Services

State lawmakers in two committees voted along party lines Tuesday to disapprove of new charter school regulations proposed by Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration – a largely symbolic move that outlined Republican concerns to a state panel that will take up the regulations next week.

The regulations, which were submitted to lawmakers and the Independent Regulatory Review Commission for review in February, are part of an effort by the Wolf administration to update the state’s rules for charter schools. 

The new regulations proposed by the state Department of Education would update application requirements for opening charter schools and clarify provisions that subject charter school officials – including school trustees – to the state’s Ethics Act. The regulations also outline financial and auditing requirements for charter schools, and set a clear timeline for charter schools to request payments from school districts. 

Republican lawmakers expressed worry over the regulations on Tuesday, with both the House and Senate Education Committees voting to send a letter to the commission disapproving of the final iteration

House Education Committee Chairman Curt Sonney, a Republican from Erie County, said some aspects of the regulations could lead to confusion among charter schools and school districts alike. 

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, who serves as an ex-officio member of the Senate Education Committee, ridiculed the Wolf administration for attempting to make the changes unilaterally through the regulatory process and not through legislation. 

“This is just another attempt by the Wolf administration, as they’re on their way out the door, to get something done that they couldn’t get done through the normal process,” Corman said, adding that he believes the regulatory changes would reduce the ability for parents to choose where their children go to school.

In his last two budgets, Wolf has proposed significant overhauls to the state’s Charter School Law. He has suggested applying the state’s Special Education Funding formula to all public schools – including charter schools – and establishing a statewide cyber charter school tuition rate. However, the changes have not been uniformly embraced by state lawmakers.

In the absence of reforms to the Charter School Law, Democrats have championed Wolf’s regulatory proposals as incremental, necessary reforms to how charter schools operate. State Rep. Mark Longietti, the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee, said the proposed regulations do little more than reinforce existing provisions in state law. 

“They represent over two years of work by the department, which reviewed thousands of public comments and made important revisions to address those comments. In many cases, they reiterate statutory law and reflect decisions of the Charter School Appeal Board,” Longietti said. “Specifically, the regulations provide for a model charter school application, which sets forth the minimum pieces of information that an applicant must provide when proposing to establish a charter school.

“Serious charter school applications should contain these minimum requirements, which are necessary for evaluation by the host school district,” Longietti added. 

Other proponents of the regulations, including Secretary of Education Noe Ortega and state Sen. Lindsey Williams, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, say the regulations will improve transparency and accountability for charter schools. 

Both committees will send a letter to the commission stating their concerns about the draft regulation, but the ultimate decision will be left up to the commission’s five members, who will convene on March 21 to vote on the regulations.

For his part, Sonney said he’s not closing the door on reaching a compromise with the Wolf administration on charter school reform legislation. “Many of these regulations we are in total agreement with. However, there are many that are on this list that do not add clarity but add confusion,” he said. “We need to be adding clarity and the only way we’re going to do that is if we all work together to get that done – and it is my hope that we will get there.”