Education committees urge rejection of Wolf administration charter school regulations

The Independent Regulatory Review Commission, which reviews drafted and final regulations from state agencies, has a meeting scheduled for March 21 on the proposed rule changes

By: - March 15, 2022 2:43 pm

Sen. Scott Martin, R-York, speaks during a Senate Education Committee meeting on Monday, Oct. 18, 2021. (Screenshot)

The Pennsylvania House and Senate Education committees voted Tuesday to urge a regulatory panel to reject proposed charter school regulations drafted by the Wolf administration.

The Independent Regulatory Review Commission, which reviews drafted and final regulations from state agencies, has a meeting scheduled for March 21 on the proposal.

The proposed regulations establish minimum standards for charter schools — something the Wolf administration has said will increase accountability, equity, education quality, and transparency.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who is in his final term, has called for reforming Pennsylvania’s charter law, saying charter schools, which are privately managed institutions that receive taxpayer money, are overpaid for services.

The proposed regulations clarify elements included in the law and set standards for application and enrollment practices.

The Wolf administration’s proposed regulations clarify that charter school boards — whose members are not elected — are subject to the Public Official and Employee Ethics Act. The regulations also require standard fiscal management and auditing practices and clarifies that charter schools must comply with health care benefit provisions.

The Senate Education Committee voted 7-4 along party lines to disapprove the regulations in a letter to IRRC Tuesday afternoon.

“There could be some things that we actually agree upon,” Senate Education Committee Chairperson Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, said, acknowledging recent attempts to reform the charter school law. “But the moment that the legislature starts basically punting away its ability to change laws or to make laws to a regulatory body is not in the best interest of the people who elect to serve us.”

In a 15-10 vote, the House Education Committee also sent a letter disapproving the proposal.

“It seems the Wolf administration continues to believe it should go it alone instead of seeking input from all parties,” House Education Committee Chairperson Curt Sonney, R-Erie, said in a statement. “I hope the department will withdraw these and start anew. If not, these regulations would harm the 170,000 Pennsylvania students enrolled in charter schools and the tens of thousands of students who are on a waitlist.”

Under current law, charter schools do not charge tuition. Instead, the majority of funds come from their students’ home districts. Charter schools receive funds based on a formula that requires tuition rates for non-special and special education students.

Last year, Wolf and lawmakers unveiled a bipartisan proposal to change the state’s 24-year-old charter school law. As written, the plan would implement a funding formula to calculate charter school tuition payments to regulate how taxpayer dollars are spent, saving an estimated $395 million a year.

“This is not about cutting funding. This is about ensuring taxpayers are not overpaying charter schools and draining money from traditional public school classrooms,” Wolf said in a January statement. “We must ensure that every school, both charter and traditional, has the resources to give students the education they need.

The proposal would create performance standards to hold low-performing charter schools accountable and give high-performing programs flexibility. It also would limit cyber school enrollment until educational quality improves, require charter schools to have policies that prevent nepotism and conflicts of interest, and ensure leaders abide by State Ethics Commission requirements.

When Wolf unveiled his reform plan last year, traditional school educators expressed similar frustration, saying that the current funding formula is based on what districts spend for required programs and services, some of which charter schools don’t provide. Dozens of school boards across the state have passed resolutions calling for reform.

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