Education group wants Wolf to prevent Corbett-appointed charter school board from making rulings

Gov. Tom Wolf (Flickr)

A leading education organization is calling on Gov. Tom Wolf to prevent a state board from ruling on charter school appeals until he works with the state Senate to fill its six seats.

According to Wolf’s office, the governor is not empowered to place a moratorium on the board’s actions.

Public Citizens For Children and Youth, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that advocates for high-quality public education, called for the moratorium in a statement Monday. The group is led by Donna Cooper, former policy secretary under Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell.

All five members of the powerful Charter School Appeal Board are holdovers from Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration, as the Philadelphia-based news site The Notebook recently reported.

The charter appeals board can overturn a local school board’s decision to deny, revoke, or not renew a charter school application. Charter schools in Pennsylvania are privately run but funded with contributions from public school districts.

As the Capital-Star reported, the board’s members may soon be asked to rule on the appeal of their former chair, Carolyn Dumaresq, who was acting Secretary of Education under Corbett. Nothing in state law prevents the board from doing that, but the situation could raise questions over impartiality, according to a good-government advocate. 

The board’s decision to grant a charter application the Pittsburgh school board voted unanimously to reject is also drawing fire from two General Assembly Democrats.

Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-Allegheny, said in a statement the appeals board ignored “mountains of evidence” in awarding a charter to Pittsburgh-based Catalyst Academy. She and Rep. Ed Gainey, D-Allegheny, both said the appeals board should not overrule the will of locally elected school board officials.

The charter appeals board overturned a local school board in five of the eight decisions it made between 2016 and 2018, according to documents posted on its website.

Wolf has the power to nominate appointees to the charter appeals board, but he has not done so since he took office in 2015. The Republican-controlled state Senate must approve his nominees.

All five sitting members of the appeals board continue to serve “holdover terms” since their replacements have not been identified, as allowed under state law. A sixth seat on the board is vacant.

Public Citizens For Children and Youth noted that many boards across the commonwealth have members with expired terms who still carry out official duties. 

But the group says the charter appeals board is different:

“Other state boards or commissions serve as the administrative hearing venue for appeals of the decisions made by municipal or county elected officials; but the [charter appeals board] has sweeping powers to override the decision of a locally elected officials in a manner that directs the expenditure of locally collected taxes.  As such, the one vacancy combined with the fact that all sitting members are serving in expired terms and that they all reflect the perspective of the former governor calls into question the fairness and balance exercised by the board.”

“We agree with the desire to have full term appointments to the board and we are working through that process with the Senate,” Wolf spokesperson J.J. Abbott said.

John Callahan, policy director for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said Monday that Wolf and the Senate should move forward with the process of appointing new members to the appeals board.

But he stopped short of joining Public Citizens’ call for the board to suspend its operations.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati’s office did not respond to requests for comment Monday.

The Pennsylvania Education Association, which represents teachers unions across the commonwealth, declined to comment on the call for a moratorium.

But other education advocates chimed in. One charter school proponent said this is the first time the appeals board’s impartiality has been called into question.

“The appeal board is non-partisan and now someone who is clearly not a supporter of public charter schools is calling for a moratorium,” Ana Meyers, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said in a statement. “Cooper should be asked to cite evidence of the board not being impartial.”

The Education Law Center, which recently issued a report highlighting inequities in Philadelphia charter schools, said the appeals board has long been neglected by politicians.

Executive Director Deborah Gordon Klehr said the state needs stronger oversight of the charter appeals process at every level.

“The members of the current board must be promptly replaced or reappointed and the vacancy on the board filled,” Klher said in a statement. “[Appeals board] appointees must have a demonstrated commitment to educational equity, as they play a critical role in ensuring that charter schools respect the civil rights of historically underserved students.”

Capital-Star Associate Editor Sarah Anne Hughes contributed to this report.

This story has been updated to clarify the position of Wolf’s office and provide additional information.

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