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Legislators, Educators in Pa. Embroiled in Charter Debate

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As state senators in Pennsylvania debate the passage of a bill that would change the state's charter school law and educators in Philadelphia navigate a funding crisis for the city's schools, much media attention is being paid to the impact of charter schools on local districts there.

The state Senate Appropriations Committee approved an amended version of the charter school bill, reports the Patriot-News, moving it one step closer to being voted on by the senate as a whole.

The bill—which has the support of education reform groups like StudentsFirst Pennsylvania, PennCAN, the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, and the Philadelphia Black Alliance for Educational Options—would allow colleges and universities to become charter school authorizers, extend charter renewals from five years to ten, and remove enrollment caps on charter schools. It is opposed by the AFT Pennsylvania as well as the Education Law Center, which has posted a critique of the bill on its website.

In the meantime, district officials in the state's Allentown school district  have passed a resolution urging state lawmakers to reform the funding formula for charters and provide financial aid to the district to offset the cost of charters there, according to LehighValleyLive.com. The district is currently faced with four applications for new charter schools as well as an appeal of a rejected charter school application, says the article. Currently, over 2,000 students in the 17,000-student district attend charter schools, diverting nearly $20 million of funding from the district, said the district's financial officer.

The Education Law Center also recently hosted a conference call during which its leaders urged officials at the Pennsylvania Department of Education to deny the six cyber charter school applications that were submitted this year. The testimony also called for a moratorium on cyber charter schools until stricter measures are placed on the schools to increase academic performance. Last year, the state education department voted down all eight of the cyber charter school applications.

Lastly, National Public Radio devoted the last of its three-part segment on Philadelphia's education crisis to charter schools. The story documents the success of the Simon Gratz Mastery Charter school in Philadelphia, which has seen increased achievement and lower amounts of violence since its conversion to a charter two years ago. But the school also raised more than $1.5 million from private donors to make the changes, said the story, which is not feasible for every public school in the district and raises questions about the scalability of such models.

The debate over the proper role of charter schools in the state is likely to continue as the state senate works through changes to the charter school law. And of course, whether the senate bill will become law depends largely on its ability to make it through the state's House of Representatives, which passed a very different charter school law earlier this year. 

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