Pa. charter school reform bills' goal: Treat all public schools equally

HARRISBURG, April 19 – House Democrats today unveiled a package of eight charter school reform bills designed to treat all Pennsylvania public schools – both traditional and charter – and their students equally under law.

"I am hopeful we can pull together bipartisan support for these bills that improve efficiencies and accountability, which means that there will be more money available for education. Providing high-quality education to all Pennsylvania students should be the ultimate goal of our educational system," said Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster, chairman of the House Democratic Policy Committee.

Rep. James Roebuck, D-Phila., Democratic chairman of the House Education Committee, has introduced a bill (H.B. 1199) that would end conflicts of interest in tax-funded payments for charter school leases.

"The auditor general's office has identified millions of dollars in questionable charter school leases. We need to prevent these conflicts of interest up front, and we need to recover taxpayers' money to benefit students when there has been an inappropriate payment for one of these leases. Every dollar that goes to an inappropriate lease is a dollar that doesn't go to educate our kids," Roebuck said.

Rep. Mike Carroll, D-Luzerne, introduced a bill (H.B. 1198) that would bring charter schools in line with school districts by imposing limits on the surpluses that charter schools may accumulate.

"My legislation would bring charter schools in line with school districts by imposing limits on the unassigned fund balances that charter schools may accumulate," Carroll said. "My bill would benefit school districts and taxpayers by requiring public charter schools to refund unassigned fund balances in excess of the limits on a pro rata basis to all school districts that paid tuition to the charter school in the prior school year."

Rep. Mark Longietti, D-Mercer, is introducing a bill (H.B. 1201) that would limit charter school management organization fees to no more than 5 percent of tuition charged per student enrolled. Besides limiting overhead, Longietti said his bill would require much more disclosure of financial documentation from for-profit and nonprofit school management organizations.

"Currently, Pennsylvania law is deficient on placing limits paid – and revealing contracts made – with management companies, which can result in profit-making with public education dollars," Longietti said. "Moreover, management company fees increase a school’s administrative costs and result in less money being available to educate the students."

The five other bills in the package are:

  • H.B. 1200, introduced by Rep. Dan Miller, D-Allegheny, would phase in a final recommendation of the Special Education Funding Commission to fix how Pennsylvania pays for high-cost special education students. Currently, charter and cyber schools essentially get penalized if they accept high-cost special education kids. At the same time, in the 2012-13 school year, charter schools received nearly $200 million more than necessary to meet the special education needs of their students.
  • H.B. 1202, introduced by Rep. Steve McCarter, D-Montgomery, would require charter schools to use the same teacher evaluation system already in use at other public schools. This would take effect in the 2017-18 school year and would allow parents and taxpayers to compare "apples to apples."
  • H.B. 1203, introduced by Rep. Mike Schlossberg, D-Lehigh, would address the millions of dollars' worth of ads for charter and cyber charter schools, which would have to stop advertising "free" tuition or transportation. Their ads would have to start disclosing that instructional and transportation costs are paid for by tax dollars, much like the existing requirement for ads by state agencies.
  • H.B. 1204, introduced by Rep. Maria Donatucci, D-Phila./Delaware, would provide a clear process for administrators to follow when closing a traditional or charter school building. Her bill would also allow the state to develop a database of unused or underused school facilities to ensure their potential sale or re-use benefits the taxpayers who paid for them.
  • H.B. 1205, introduced by Rep. Maureen Madden, D-Monroe, would require school districts and charter schools to transfer student records to each other within 10 days of receiving the request, and this would include attendance records. This has been an issue in her district in the Poconos, in Philadelphia and elsewhere.

Roebuck said, "The core idea of our legislative package is this: Charter schools and traditional public schools should be treated equally under law. Both receive tax dollars, and both are already considered public schools under Pennsylvania law."