Update (Oct. 18, 2012): The House recessed Oct. 17 without passing S.B. 1115 and neither the House nor Senate are expected to hold more voting session days in the 2011-12 session. Rep. Roebuck hopes this will give the legislature a chance to do charter and cyber charter reform right as he outlined in this Oct. 17 news release. The next session starts in January.
Roebuck: Charter/cyber school reform bill gets an 'Incomplete' grade
HARRISBURG, Oct. 17 – State Rep. James Roebuck, D-Phila., Democratic chairman of the House Education Committee, gives a grade of "Incomplete" to the charter and cyber charter school reform bill that's expected to pass the House today and head to the governor's desk.
"While I welcome some of the changes that have been made to this bill, the Republican majorities in the legislature and the governor could have – and should have – done much more to ensure accountability for tax dollars," Roebuck said. "In the last two years, public schools have taken a nearly $1 billion cut in state funding, followed by a second state budget that locked in those cuts. These cuts have led to program cuts, the loss of 20,000 jobs and property tax hikes. We need to stop overpaying some charters at the expense of traditional public schools that have to accept every student."
Roebuck said key points of the bill (S.B. 1115) include:
- Keeping records open: Lawmakers removed the bill's open-records exemption for private management companies that run many charters. "This is a win for accountability," Roebuck said.
- Keeping local control, but not completely: Lawmakers removed a plan to give a statewide board sweeping new powers to override elected local school boards and authorize dozens more charter schools. However, a back-door statewide authorizer is added through an option to consolidate multiple charter school organizations and transfer their oversight from the local school board to the state Department of Education. The department currently does not have the resources or expertise to handle the comprehensive review required by this legislation. It is already responsible for overseeing cyber charter schools -- adding brick-and-mortar charters is burdensome and removes local control over these neighborhood charter schools, Roebuck said.
- Surplus loophole: The bill gives charters nearly a year's time they can use to spend down surpluses before they are required to return those excess amounts to school districts. "Everyone has agreed that tax-funded charters need to live under the same 8 to 12 percent surplus limits as traditional schools do, but giving charters until June 30, 2013, to spend down those surpluses is a mistake," Roebuck said.
In 2010, the auditor general reported that charter schools had $108 million in reserve funds. Nearly half of charter schools had a cumulative reserve fund balance above traditional public schools' limit of 12 percent of their annual spending. The charter school balances ranged as high as 95 percent. In 2009-10, school districts paid charter schools $795 million, with only about $227 million reimbursed to them by the state. The 2011-12 state budget ended that state reimbursement.
- An end to the model/innovation requirement: The bill removes the requirement that charter school applications must detail, "the extent to which the charter school may serve as a model for other public schools." Roebuck said, "When Pennsylvania first authorized charter schools 15 years ago, this was one of the main reasons. This change is a huge step backward for students and their families. If charters don't have to provide something different and better, why have them?"
- Falls short on charter school teacher evaluations: "Under the bill expected to pass today, teacher evaluations at charters will not compare to what we will require for teachers in traditional public school teachers under a law passed just four months ago," Roebuck said.
Specifically, he said the bill's system for evaluating charter school teachers:
- has minimal details on performance measures to be used
- has no impact on teacher employment
- has no required improvement plan for poor performing teachers
- doesn’t cover principals or non-teaching professionals in schools
"We recently learned the Corbett administration changed the PSSA testing rules for charter schools in a way that makes it easier for them to meet federal benchmarks than traditional public schools –without federal approval. Students, parents and taxpayers deserve apples-to-apples comparisons on test results and teacher evaluations," Roebuck said.
Roebuck said the bipartisan charter and cyber charter school reform bill (H.B. 2661) he introduced earlier this month addresses needs that S.B. 1115 does not. In addition to starting the surplus limits this school year and keeping local control, Roebuck's bill would:
- Remove the "double dip" for pension costs by charter and cyber charter schools: Presently, a school district's cost for retirement expenditure is not subtracted from expenditures in the tuition calculation that determines funding for charters. This sets up a "double dip" since state law guarantees charter schools reimbursement for their retirement costs. The Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials estimates that between 2011-12 and 2016-17, eliminating the "double dip" would save school districts $510 million, including $45.8 million in savings for 2012-13.
- Rein in special education spending at charters: Roebuck's bill would limit the amount of special education funding that a charter or cyber charter school receives per student to the school district's total per-pupil spending for special education services. The state funding formula's 16 percent cap on school district special education population does not apply to charter schools. An official of Bensalem Township High School in Bucks County testified last year that this results in paying $3,425 more per charter school special education student than Bensalem is paying for its own special education students.
- Determine what it actually costs to educate students in charter and cyber charter schools: Roebuck's bill would require year-end audits by the state Department of Education to determine the actual costs of education services of charter and cyber charter schools, followed by an annual year-end final reconciliation process of tuition payments from school districts against those actual costs. Any overpayments would be returned to the school districts. In the 2010-11 school year, non-special education tuition rates per student ranged from $4,478 to $16,915.
Roebuck said the bill expected to pass today only provides for audits of charter schools commissioned by those schools. "So under the bill that's heading to the governor, we never actually find out how much money is being spent on educating students versus overhead and administrative costs. My bill would require a breakdown of these expenses by the charter school," he said.
- Increase transparency for contractors that provide management, educational or administrative services to charter and cyber charter schools by requiring disclosure of a financial relationship with for-profit providers. Roebuck said the bill expected to pass today fails to do that.