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Pa. Charter-School Bill Cuts Cyber-Charter Funding, But Angers District Advocates

UPDATED

One of the relatively long-running state K-12 policy battles has been the fight over how to overhaul Pennsylvania's charter-school law. The existing law has been on the books since 1997, and it hasn't been altered significantly since then. I reported on a bill that would have revamped charter-school regulations last year, but it ultimately flopped. Once again, there's proposed legislation making its way through the Keystone State legislature that would dramatically alter the law, but it creates clear winners and losers in the process. 

The legislation under consideration is Senate Bill 1085, sponsored by Sen. Lloyd Smucker, a Republican.  As in many instances, you'll get perhaps a clearer overview of the bill from its fiscal note prepared by state analysts. Friends of charter schools will like the fact that institutes of higher education will now be able to authorize charters without approval from local school boards. The bill would also increase the term of such a school's initial charter from three to five years, and it would allow existing charter schools to have their charters renewed every 10 years, instead of every five years. In addition, a charter school would be able to "amend" its charter agreement without necessarily going through a full renewal process. 

Local school boards, as well as colleges and universities starting charter schools, would be unable to alter or add requirements onto a standard charter-school application, which the bill requires the Pennsylvania education department to develop. And two or more charter schools would be allowed to consolidate under the terms of the legislation and transfer oversight responsibility to the state, a potential further erosion of local oversight. Only colleges and universities that have at least 2,000 students enrolled could authorize charters, and there are additional requirements depending on where the proposed charter is located in relation to the respective institutes of higher education.

On the financial side, the legislation would also provide for direct state payments to charter schools in 12 annual installments, to be deducted from the corresponding payments to a charter-school student's home district. And the bill would cut state retirement payments for charter-school employees in the public retirement fund by 50 percent. That amounts to $44 million in savings for the state.

But cyber charter schools, which have been a particularly controversial topic in Pennsylvania public schools, would get the short end of the stick by only receiving 95 percent of per-student funding from districts, a move that would save districts about $18.7 million annually. Right now, there are 15 cyber charter schools in the state. 

As the Philadelphia Inquirer reports, local school boards and other K-12 advocates are very unhappy about the proposal. In particular, they're worried about colleges and universities squashing local school boards' prerogatives—one local board member, Larry Feinberg, raised the possibility that a group that applies with a local university to start a charter school would be able to grease the skids simply by making a donation to that university. They're also worried about an 18-member charter-school funding commission that the bill would create. Convened by the governor, it would issue a report on charter-school finance by Aug. 31, 2014. Under the auspices of Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, that commission could look favorably on charter-school finance issues at the expense of traditional schools and local boards, critics said.

"It is designed cleverly to dismantle any local system," Joan Duvall-Flynn, who leads the Philadelphia NAACP's education commitee, told the paper about the idea of higher education authorizing charters. She added that "each of these children have a little backpack of money attached to them. When the child leaves his classroom, he takes his backpack with him."

But lest you think that charter-school supporters are 100 percent behind the bill, the Center for Education Reform, a group that strongly supports charters and school choice, isn't thrilled with the proposal. An anotated copy of the text highlights the center's concern that the bill is too prescriptive. The center says that it places too much power in the hands of the state education department and places too many regulations on the new authorizers in higher education. 

"There is nothing in this bill that follows the success seen in New York, Michigan, DC or Indiana to name four clear victors in chartering," the center wrote. "Everything in this bill mirrors problems we see in states like Maine, New Mexico, Idaho and New Jersey, and as a result options in these states are limited and discouraged."

The bill could get a vote in the next few weeks. UPDATE: I should have noted initially that the Pennsylvania House passed its own bill in September that would alter charter-school policy in the state. 

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