In a victory for the Wolf administration, Pa. review board approves charter school regulations

‘Is the regulation perfect? No. Nothing will ever be perfect, but we have to look at it as a whole,’ Independent Regulatory Review Commission Chairperson George Bedwick said

By: - March 21, 2022 3:24 pm

The Independent Regulatory Review Commission meets on Monday, March 21, 2022. (Screenshot)

In a victory for the Wolf administration on Monday, Pennsylvania’s regulatory review board approved final charter school regulations — a decision Gov. Tom Wolf says will bring clarity and accountability to the state’s 25-year-old charter school law.

The five-member Independent Regulatory Review Commission voted 3-2 to accept the final regulations, which implement standards for charter school applications, enrollment policies, ethics requirements for charter school board members, and health benefits offered to charter school employees.

Commissioners John Mizner and John Soroko voted against the regulations, saying it was a legislative matter. 

The commission’s chair, George Bedwick, who cast the deciding vote, said the regulations submitted to the commission by the Department of Education clarify — rather than expand — existing law. He added that the approval was not the end of the reform process but rather the beginning.

“Is the regulation perfect? No. Nothing will ever be perfect, but we have to look at it as a whole,” Bedwick said after nearly three hours of public comment and questioning on the regulation.

Wolf, who leaves office in January 2023, has repeatedly called for reforming Pennsylvania’s charter school law. The term-limited governor has said the schools, which are privately managed institutions that receive public funds, are overpaid for their services. The administration has also argued that the schools operate under less transparent policies than traditional districts. Voters do not elect charter school board members.

Traditional K-12 school districts in Pennsylvania make tuition payments, funded by property taxes, for students who attend charter schools. More than 400 school districts have passed resolutions to support Wolf’s charter school reform proposal, which he unveiled last year.

It calls for performance standards to hold low-performing charter schools accountable and give high-performing programs flexibility. The proposal 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.

“These regulations are a vital step in clarifying charter schools’ responsibilities to the taxpayers who fund them,” Wolf said in a statement issued shortly after the commission’s decision. “We were forced to take this path when the Legislature refused to act on our comprehensive reform package. Charter schools received nearly $3 billion in publicly paid tuition this school year. Parents and taxpayers have a right to know how those resources are being used.”

Under the final regulations, charter schools must adhere to a standardized application process and publicly post non-discriminatory enrollment policies. The regulations clarify that charter school board members are subject to the Public Official and Employee Ethics Act and require standard fiscal management and auditing practices. The approved proposal also states that charter schools must offer employees health benefits comparable to those offered by their home school district.

School districts and charter schools must follow the same financial management and auditing standards. The final regulations streamline the process for charter schools to request tuition payments from school districts and the state.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in the GOP-controlled Legislature have expressed a desire to reform the charter school law. However, Democrats and Republicans cannot agree on what that reform looks like despite grappling with the issue for decades.

Last week, the House and Senate Education committees sent letters urging the review panel to reject the final regulations, arguing that the Wolf administration has overstepped its authority by circumventing the legislative process.

The commission heard from more than a dozen stakeholders Monday. Charter school officials, urging a vote against the proposal, argued that the regulations create additional restrictions and requirements for charter schools. 

Jennifer Arevalo, representing the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said the proposal “circumvents the legislative process” and added that they could have a “detrimental economic impact on the charter school community.” Arevalo added that the regulations could “put students back into bad situations” by threatening the closure of charter schools and jeopardizing their ability to pay bills.

Traditional school officials called the proposed regulations “much-needed” and “long overdue” to ensure transparent and fair practices.

“This is about providing the necessary information for families to choose, and then ensuring that schools adhere to requirements and meet expectations,” Lisa Augustin, director of charter schools for Pittsburgh Public Schools, said. 

Officials from the Department of Education told the commission that the regulations aim to clarify existing law, ensure transparency, and build relationships, department Deputy Secretary Sherri Smith said.

“One thing I’ve learned is [that] regulations and clarity so that everybody understands the perspective from the very beginning helps the conversation from the very get-go,” Smith said, defending the department’s motive.

She added that the development of the regulations “was not to play sides but to find a balance to try to help support both sides, so we can improve those relationships and hopefully make things a lot easier.”

Julie Kane, policy director for the Department of Education, told the commission that if the state agency thought the regulations would harm education quality or take away from opportunities for school choice, officials would not have drafted the proposal.

The Legislature still has recourse to challenge the commission’s decision. The House or Senate Education committees have 14 calendar days from when either receives a letter of approval from the commission to issue a concurrent resolution on the regulations. After the committee reports a concurrent resolution, the House and Senate have 30 days or 10 legislative days, whichever is later, to pass the concurrent resolution.

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