Gov. Wolf wants to ‘level the playing field’ with charter reform, but not everyone is on board

By: - June 3, 2021 7:24 am

Gov. Tom Wolf speaks at a Middletown child care center Tuesday, August 25 to roll out his fall agenda, including legal weed (Capital-Star photo).

Saying that he wants to bring accountability to what he describes as a broken system, Gov. Tom Wolf again has called on lawmakers to “level the playing field” with charter school reform. 

But not everyone can get behind his method for repair.

Joined by educators in Lancaster County on Tuesday, Wolf promoted his bipartisan proposal to reform Pennsylvania’s 24-year-old charter school law. As it’s currently 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.

“Charter schools should be focused on students — not profits,” Wolf said. “We are currently overpaying many charter schools for the services they provide. This plan isn’t about cutting funding. It’s about realigning what taxpayers pay with what it costs to provide a charter education to students. It’s about ensuring that every school, both charter and traditional, has the resources to give students the education they deserve.”

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

Under current law, charter schools do not charge tuition; instead, the majority of funds come from their students’ home districts. Funds received by charters are based on a formula that requires tuition rates for non-special and special education students.

When Wolf unveiled his reform plan earlier this 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.

“Pennsylvania’s charter school law is failing children, parents, and taxpayers,” School District of Lancaster Superintendent Damaris Rau said in a statement. “It is draining funding from traditional schools at a time when we can least afford it, and it is not improving educational outcomes for students.”

Critics, however, fear the legislation will take away much-needed services from charter programs and limit parents’ ability to choose an educational program that works best for their child.

Lenny McAllister, CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said charter programs address the needs of underserved communities. Calling Wolf’s proposal a “ruse,” he added that charter programs are held accountable by the state Department of Education and school officials. Wolf’s proposal, he said, implies that accountability is currently nonexistent.

“We want to see increased accountability across all of public education,” McAllister said, saying Wolf doesn’t talk about holding public schools accountable. “If we’re going to have accountability, it needs to be accountability across the board for public schools, charter schools, or district schools.”

Reform of any kind needs to avoid “broad brushstrokes” that affect all charter programs regardless of their performance or instructional model, Centre Learning Community Charter School CEO Brian Rowan told the Capital-Star. 

He added that Wolf’s proposal to fund special education in charter schools the same way the state does for all other public schools could “broadly and negatively impact the quality of education in charter programs.”

“Given that school districts primarily use local taxes to raise funds and do not solely rely on state funding for their special education programs, forcing charter schools to rely on the state’s flawed special education formula without the ability to supplement those funds would greatly impact the services provided to our special education students,” Rowan said.

In March, Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, said Wolf’s proposal was “not based on what the parents and students in Pennsylvania want and need.” Describing Wolf as “tone-deaf and out-of-touch” in a statement, Corman suggested the governor work with legislators to create reform without slashing funds.

Timothy Wendling, CEO and principal of the Harrisburg-based Capital Area School for the Arts Charter School, says he’s open to common-sense reform that holds charter programs accountable for their spending and academic standards.

But CASA Charter School — a nonprofit — differs from the programs Wolf often talks about, Wendling added. He noted that the program is already being held accountable by students, parents, the community and surrounding districts, as well as the state Department of Education.

Wendling said all funds go directly to educational programming. Even with subsidies from local districts, the program still fundraises to close the budget gap. A reduction in the special education student rate would result in budget challenges and difficulties when planning for speech and language support, he added.

“As Governor Wolf explores charter school reform, we hope he would seize upon the opportunity to visit CASA Charter School in person and witness the positive impact our school has had on our students’ educational experiences,” Wendling told the Capital-Star.

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