A new charter school got the green light to open its doors in Harrisburg this September, thanks to a decision by a powerful state board whose members formerly worked alongside the school’s founder.
Pennsylvania’s Charter School Appeals Board voted 5-0 on Tuesday to overturn the Harrisburg School Board’s decision to deny a charter to the Pennsylvania STEAM Academy – a school founded by Carolyn Dumaresq, who was the state’s acting education secretary under former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.
The unanimous vote will allow the charter school to open for the first time this fall. It plans to enroll 120 children in grades K-2 at a new campus in Harrisburg’s Midtown neighborhood, just blocks from the state Capitol.
Like all charter schools in Pennsylvania, it will be funded by tuition payments from public school districts whose pupils choose to enroll there.
For the charter school proponents and its founders, the decision marked the end of a long struggle to open the first new charter school in nearly a decade in the Harrisburg district, which has been under state control for two years.
“It’s been a long road,” Dumaresq told the Capital-Star Thursday. “I’m just glad our application was strong enough to stand up.”
But for some education advocates, the verdict was a reminder of a years-long problem plaguing one of the state’s most powerful boards – one that Gov. Tom Wolf has limited time to solve.
When Dumaresq appeared before the board on Tuesday, she was granted an appeal by the same people she served alongside when she chaired the charter appeals board as Corbett’s education chief.
Except for current Acting Education Secretary Noe Ortega, who serves as board chair, all six members of the appeals board are holdovers from the Corbett administration whose terms have long expired.
Two of the board’s current members were already on the board before Dumaresq became the state’s acting education secretary in August 2013. The other three were appointed before she left office in January 2015.
The appeals board isn’t supposed to be so stagnant. But during his six years in office, Wolf has not nominated a single member to the powerful panel, whose appointed members can overturn decisions by locally elected school board directors.
He has not moved to fill two vacant seats on the board, either.
The board’s incomplete membership has rankled charter critics and advocates alike. It’s even come at a cost to taxpayers: The board has tried and failed three times in the past two years to render a decision on a case brought by Propel Charter School in Pittsburgh, but needs at least another member to cast a tie-breaking vote.
The gridlock has left taxpayers footing the bill as attorneys make repeated trips to Harrisburg to argue the appeal.
“It has been very frustrating to watch these seats sit either unoccupied or occupied by people who [should] no longer fill the role” because their terms have expired, Sen. Lindsay Williams, a Democrat who represents part of Pittsburgh, told the Capital-Star on Friday. “Not having a fully functioning [board] hurts parents and it hurts charter schools.”
The lack of turnover on the board has also led to a potential conflict of interest in Dumaresq’s case, as the former education official had to ask her former colleagues to grant her appeal.
Dumaresq told the Capital-Star in 2019 that she didn’t think her tenure on the board would jeopardize its ability to render a fair verdict on her charter application.
She reiterated that belief on Thursday. She said that the board’s vote followed a lengthy meeting last year where representatives of the STEAM Academy and the Harrisburg City School District presented their arguments to board members.
She also noted that one board member, Jonathan Peri, recused himself from voting on her appeal, apparently to avoid perceptions of partiality. Attempts to reach Peri by phone were unsuccessful.
“I think we got a very fair hearing,” Dumaresq said. “What you have are very seasoned board members who have denied charters and approved them, and whose background and history of working on the board makes it very strong.”
A wasted opportunity?
Wolf sends the state Senate hundreds of appointees each year, nominating them to fill cabinet posts, judicial vacancies and seats on state licensing boards.
Executive nominations are typically the subject of closed-door negotiations between Wolf’s office and leaders in the Republican-controlled Senate, which must approve the nominees Wolf puts forth.
It’s common for members of appointed boards and commissions to stay on after their terms ends until a replacement is named. It also can take time for the executive branch to find and vet the right nominee for a vacant position.
But education advocates say that Wolf’s failure to repopulate the charter appeals panel is unusual, given the board’s power to direct the flow of taxpayer resources and overturn decisions by locally elected school board directors.
And as one of those advocates pointed out, Wolf’s time to make new appointments is ticking down.
The term-limited Wolf has just 18 months until the 2022 election arrives and makes him a lame-duck governor.
If he leaves office without appointing new members to the charter appeals board, he’ll squander an opportunity to populate a board whose decisions could set precedent for years to come or test the limits of the state’s 20-year-old charter law, said Donna Cooper, a former aide to ex-Gov. Ed Rendell.
“I think this [current board] has stayed very conservative and has not tested limits of the law that would protect taxpayers and students,” said Cooper, who now serves as the executive director of a Philadelphia-based education advocacy group that’s been critical of charter expansion. “One would assume a Democratic governor’s appointees might have said, ‘look, there is a grey area here we can push.’”
Charter school critics have long argued that there’s an inherent tension between the state’s charter school law, which prevents a school board from rejecting a sound charter application based on financial concerns, and the state constitution, which requires school districts to provide a quality education to students in their district.
They point to this apparent contradiction to argue that school board directors should have the right to reject new charter schools if the funds they divert from district schools will lessen the quality of education for the rest of their students.
That was the reasoning that Harrisburg School Board directors gave when they first voted to deny the STEAM Academy Charter in 2019, saying that they couldn’t afford to lose students and their attendant tuition dollars.
But the current charter appeals board has never issued a verdict endorsing that logic. Cooper said a board that’s populated with Wolf appointees might be willing to interpret the law differently, setting precedent for charter decisions for years to come.
Williams said she’s sent potential nominees to the governor for consideration. Charter school advocates have also been vetting names, since they want to see a fully functioning appeals board, too.
“We need people on the charter appeals board that understand that high-quality charter schools will make Pennsylvania better for decades to come,” Lenny McAllister, president of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, told the Capital-Star Friday.
When asked on Friday to comment on its plans to repopulate the appeals board, Wolf’s office referred back to a statement it issued in 2019, when it said Wolf “wants nominees that will follow the law as intended and who have experience in public education.”
Williams and Cooper acknowledge that Wolf needs some cooperation from the Senate Republicans to repopulate the charter appeals board. But they also say Wolf could muscle through appointees if he makes it a priority in negotiations with the GOP caucus.
“The governor has to make it a priority,” Williams said. “Whatever the next big thing is that Republicans want, he needs to get [appeals board] nominations. There had to have been missed opportunities in the last six years.”