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Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf visited McKeesport on Wednesday to announce new rules for charter schools. (Pennsylvania Office of the Governor photo)
In a visit Wednesday to McKeesport, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf discussed his plan for the state Department of Education to impose new fees and rules for charter schools.
The "fee-for-service" model, he said, is an attempt to recoup costs on behalf of the state, while the new rules are designed to hold charter schools to the same right-to-know and ethical standards as public school districts.
In a speech at Twin Rivers Elementary School, Wolf said the Education Department also will take steps to establish higher performance standards for online-only, or "cyber," charter schools, which have been criticized for what critics claim are high costs and low standards of student achievement.
“While there are high-quality charter schools, some of them, especially some cyber-charter schools, are underperforming,” Wolf said Wednesday. “The state and school districts need more tools to hold charters accountable and increase educational quality.”
Pennsylvania passed its charter school law in 1997 and now has the sixth-highest charter school enrollment in the nation, according to a report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
According to published reports, Pennsylvania taxpayers spend about $1.8 billion annually on the state's more than 180 charter schools. There are about 1.7 million K-12 students in Pennsylvania.
Although fewer than 10 percent of students --- 135,100 --- attend charter schools, the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, an advocacy group for public schools, says that charter school subsidies account for more than 25 percent of basic education funding in the state.
Public school districts make tuition payments to charter schools for each enrolled student.
Some districts, such as Woodland Hills, actually spend more on charter school tuition than they receive in basic education funding from the state, according to PASBO.
About 25 percent of all students in Pennsylvania who attend a charter school are attending one of the cyber-charter schools. In January, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that, among other concerns, 10 of the state's 15 cyber-charters were operating with expired charters.
In the event of a dispute between a school district and a charter school where the district withholds funding, the charter school can ask the state Education Department to "redirect" part of the district's basic education funding to the charter school instead.
Wolf has asked the department to begin assessing $15 for each student redirection payment to recoup the cost of providing that service.
In addition, beginning in 2020, applicants who want to start new cyber-charter schools will be charged a fee to review their applications. A Wolf administration spokesperson said reviewing each application has, in the past, cost the state about $86,000 per applicant.
McKeesport was the second stop Wolf has made to promote his proposed charter school reforms. The governor was in Erie last week.
Charter school advocates have been sharply critical of Wolf and his proposals. On Saturday, the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools said Wolf's restrictions would have the effect of "trapping" children in "failing (school) districts."
The group is urging parents of students in charter schools to write to their legislators and oppose the new rules.
The Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think-tank, issued a press release Aug. 22 accusing Wolf of treating charter schools and their students as "second-class citizens."
"The governor’s plan offers preferential treatment to local districts while discriminating against charter-school families," said Marc LeBlond, a senior policy analyst for the foundation. "Under the guise of oversight and accountability, Gov. Wolf’s proposal shifts educational decisions away from families toward school district administrators—who have a vested interest in blocking charter expansion."
LeBlond pointed out that public school districts do not pay "fees for services" provided by the state Education Department and said it was evidence of "preferential treatment" by the governor that would put charter schools at a disadvantage.
Nevertheless, Wolf's announcement was welcome news to McKeesport Area School District officials and local legislators, including state Sen. Jim Brewster, who has often criticized charter-school spending and oversight.
Brewster has forced the state Senate Appropriations Committee to take a series of votes --- unsuccessful ones, he acknowledged last week --- on proposed reforms of the state's charter school regulations.
“For too long, charter operations have been cloaked in secrecy with the law having multiple loopholes and little oversight capability,” Brewster said Wednesday.
“Our laws governing the operations of charter and cyber-charter schools need to be reformed,” he said. "We need to bring greater accountability and transparency so that our children are well educated, and our taxpayers protected.”
McKeesport Area School District has raised property taxes two years in a row --- in part, district officials have argued, as a result of the more than $7 million that McKeesport Area pays to support charter schools.
That $7 million represents more than 10 percent of McKeesport Area's $69.1 million budget.
Superintendent Mark Holtzman Jr., who often says that his district has learned to do "more with less," attended Wolf's announcement Wednesday.
Holtzman welcomed Wolf's efforts. “Charter school tuition continues to deplete our limited resources,” Holtzman said. “Accountability --- and other funding sources --- must be established before urban school districts, like many in the Mon Valley region, are unable to meet the needs of our students.”
Wolf's plan includes greater oversight over private, for-profit companies that manage charter schools; along with new processes to make sure that charter school board members do not have conflicts of interest, and that they don't overcharge school districts.
According to Brewster, Wolf is also asking state legislators to require charter school management companies to be subject to the state's Right-to-Know Law and Ethics Act; and to cap enrollment in cyber-charter schools where students are not meeting minimum standards.
Charter schools also would be required to make employee salaries a matter of public record --- something already required of public school districts.
Wolf's office said the governor is directing the state Education Department to establish performance standards that hold charter schools accountable for educational outcomes of students; impose a moratorium on new cyber-charter schools; and establish a commission to recommend reforms in the way charter schools are funded.
Brewster has argued that the state must move away from relying on public school property taxes to fund charter schools. In March, he proposed legislation that would impose a severance tax on natural gas production to support basic education funding as well as new school safety and security measures.
The bill was referred to the state Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee and has not been scheduled for a vote. The state senate is controlled by Republicans, and Brewster, like Wolf, is a Democrat.
But Brewster said last week he would like to work with legislators "on both sides of the aisle" to develop comprehensive reforms to education funding --- including for charter schools.
“As a long-time advocate for charter reform, I believe the governor has offered responsible administrative changes and proposed meaningful legislative solutions,” Brewster said Wednesday. “Charters need to complement, not compete with, traditional public schools.”
Others attending Wolf's announcement included state Rep. Austin Davis of McKeesport, state Rep. Jake Wheatley, who represents Pittsburgh's Hill District, Downtown and North Side; and McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko.
Jason Togyer is the editor of The Tube City Almanac and volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. He may be reached at email@example.com.
Originally published September 04, 2019.