Pennsylvania’s charter school law is a national disgrace.
It allows charters to defraud the public and provide a substandard education to our children.
Charter school managers pay themselves with taxpayer money for leases on properties they already own. They funnel money through shell companies into their own pockets. Academic achievement at many charters is far below par.
And it’s all legal.
That’s why state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has long called it the “worst charter school law” in the country. But his call for sweeping reforms from the legislature has fallen on mostly deaf ears.
State Sen. Jim Brewster (D-45) is in the early stages of proposing legislation that would ensure charter schools are held as accountable as other public schools.
Specifically it would require these types of schools, which are ostensibly public but privately managed, to be transparent, fiscally solvent and responsible to taxpayers.
“It has become abundantly clear that systemic changes are needed in how brick and mortar and cyber charters operate in Pennsylvania,” Brewster says. “There is a growing frustration that charters are unaccountable.”
The bill doesn’t have a Senate number yet, nor has its specific language been made available. However, the State Senator from McKeesport announced plans to formally propose it in Harrisburg within the next several weeks.
Brewster’s bill would:
- Require local school boards to sign off on any new charter construction project costing more than $1 million. The project would have to be backed by a financing arrangement with a local industrial development authority or other government entity. This way charters would have to prove that new construction projects are fiscally sound and won’t be abandoned after wasting millions of taxpayer dollars.
- Compel charter schools to prove they have the funds to keep running for the entire school year. They would have to post a bond, other type of surety, or agree to a payment escrow arrangement. This would ensure charters don’t close suddenly leaving students and parents in the lurch.
- Limit the scope of the state Charter School Appeal Board to solely determining whether the local school board acted appropriately in reviewing charter school applications. The state should not be approving new charter schools. That power should remain at the local district level, though the state can determine if local school boards are acting within the bounds of the law.
- Require officials from the state Department of Education (PDE) to visit the proposed site of a charter school to ascertain the condition of its physical building. Their report will then be made a part of the charter application. This way charters can’t get away with paying themselves for properties they already own and they won’t be able to open with substandard buildings.
- Mandate that a charter school applicant obtain approval from multiple school districts if the charter school draws more than 25 students from a specific district. Every district impacted by the opening of a new charter should have a say whether it can open.
- Upgrade accountability by requiring a quarterly report on the operations of the charter school to the local school board – with the report delivered in person by a charter school official. While traditional public schools report on operations monthly, reporting four times annually would greatly increase charter school transparency. At present charters don’t have to provide such reports sometimes for years after opening. Moreover, having a flesh and blood representative of the charter school at these meetings would allow for the public to ask questions about how their money is being spent.
- Make a structured financial impact statement part of the charter school application. This would include an estimation of enrollment multiplied by tuition payments. The impact statement may serve as the justification for denial of a charter application. This would be huge. Traditional public schools can be sucked dry of funding from fly-by-night charters without their record of proven success. Necessitating an impact statement of this kind would truly make the local district and the charter school educational partners and not competing foes.
- Increase the percentage of certified teachers at charters from 75 percent to 90 percent of faculty, though current faculty would be grandfathered in. Except under extreme circumstances, all teachers at traditional public schools are certified. Making charters raise the bar close to that of traditional public schools is an improvement – though Brewster has in the past proposed legislation to require 100 percent of charter teachers to be certified. It’s unclear why he’s settled on 90 percent here.
- Prohibit charter board members from receiving payments for school lease arrangements. This issue was highlighted in August in the auditor general’s report where he found $2.5 million tax dollars being defrauded in this way. Charter operators have complained that nothing they did was illegal. This measure would ensure that in the future such moves would be explicit violations of the law.
- Impose a moratorium on the approval of new cyber-charter schools since their academic performance has been so consistently below that of traditional public schools and brick-and-mortar charters. In fact, A recent nationwide study found that cyber charters provide 180 days less of math instruction and 72 days less of reading than traditional public schools. (By the way, there are only 180 days in an average school year.)
Brewster said these reforms offer a place to begin real robust regulation of the charter industry. However, he is open to adding others.
“The auditor general has made a number of worthwhile recommendations and I’ve combined some of these ideas with other features to produce what I believe is an excellent starting point for comprehensive reform,” he says.
“We need to dig deep and look critically at the charter law to make sweeping changes. In this year alone, the auditor general has pointed out that the reimbursement process is flawed, that there were too many reimbursement appeals and that the cyber charter law reeked with ethical issues, poor oversight and a lack of transparency.
“It is clear that the charter law is not helping schools, charters themselves or the taxpayers.”
There are more than 150 charter schools statewide enrolling more than 128,000 students, according to state data. Nearly half of these schools are in the Philadelphia area.
Two years ago, DePasquale released a set of specific recommendations to improve the charter law, which Brewster drew upon when writing his proposed legislation. DePasquale’s suggestions called for an independent board to oversee charter school processes and functions — including lease reimbursements and student enrollment. He also suggested public hearings involving charter changes, limits on fund balances and guidelines on calculating teacher certification benchmarks.
Brewster said he is not unduly singling out the charter school industry. He says he is confident making these changes will help charter schools by ensuring only high quality institutions are allowed in the Commonwealth.
The Democrat Representing the 45th legislative District says he realizes that October is late in the year to be proposing such sweeping changes. He is doing so now to raise awareness of the issue, though he doesn’t expect it to come to a vote until the next legislative session at the earliest.
He hopes to bring up many of these issues tomorrow (Oct. 13) at a Senate Democratic Policy Committee hearing at the Monroeville Municipal Building in Monroeville in his district.
The legislature tried to pass a charter school reform bill (House Bill 530 ) this summer but it had been rewritten into more giveaways to the industry than regulations. For instance, it would have allowed charters to open almost anywhere in the state without approval from local school districts. As such, it lost support.
Government watchers cautioned that this charter Trojan Horse bill might rear its ugly head again in Harrisburg. Here’s hoping that Brewster’s bill has more success and isn’t likewise bastardized into a piece of legislation that gives away the store.
If there’s one thing most people agree about in the Keystone state, it’s that we need charter school reform. Brewster’s Bill may be the answer to our prayers.