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Charter School Champions Hit Uncertainty in Pennsylvania

There have been a few interesting developments in the last few days regarding charter schools in the Keystone State, both within the state itself and the U.S. Department of Education's view of how the state has handled charters.

On Oct. 16, the state Senate approved a bill that would have established a statewide commission to consider reconfiguring the way charter schools are funded in the state, and also would have extended the length of renewals for charters from five years to 10 years, the Patriot-News reported. Advocates have been clamoring for reforms to the way charters operate and are funded in Pennsylvania and rallied at the state capital less than a month ago. But a provision that would have made it easier for a traditional public school to convert to a charter, and another that would have established a statewide panel to approve charters, were dropped from the bill.

However, those deletions and the Senate's approval weren't enough to satisfy members in the Pennsylvania House, which did not bring up the bill after the Republican leadership determined they did not have enough votes to pass it, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Both the Senate and Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, said they had expected the House to pass it. Apparently, GOP members of the House indicated that they didn't want to wait for the state panel to examine changes to the state funding system — they wanted to make the changes themselves, particularly for the way cyber charters are financed.

Incidentally, House Rep. James Roebuck, a Democrat from Philadelphia, introduced his own charter school bill earlier this month, although it appears to be the ideological opposite of the bill that died in the House this week. House Bill 2661 would place charters under increasing financial scrutiny, limit unassigned fund balances for charters, require year-end audits for charters, limit their special education funding. Roebuck said he is introducing the measure to help public school districts, which have received significant cuts in state funding, and also indicated that charters are simply getting too much cash.

"If we are overfunding some charter and cyber charter schools, as appears to be the case, that money needs to be returned to the school districts this school year, not held until 2013-14 or later," he said in a statement.

Finally, there is news for Pennsylvania charters on the federal front. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Oct. 16 that the U.S. Department of Education said the state jumped the gun when it made it easier for charters to make adequate yearly progress on state tests. The state announced the September AYP numbers for schools using the different standards for charters, and had filed the change with the federal department over the summer. However, earlier this month, federal officials said the state simply did not have the authority to change the methodology behind calculating whether charters had met AYP.

Statewide, 49 percent of charters met AYP for 2012, compared to 51 percent of all state public schools. However, in Philadelphia, charters fared much better than their traditional public school counterparts, with 54 percent of them meeting AYP, compared to a mere 13 percent for regular public schools. Pennsylvania, by the way, has not yet applied for a waiver from No Child Left Behind, so schools are still operating under existing federal education laws.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association said that without the AYP changes made specifically for charters, only 21 percent of charters using the state tests would have met AYP, and only 20 percent of charters in Philadelphia specifically would have met AYP, although the state education department had different estimates.

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