Rolling out charter school reforms, Wolf calls for a ‘level playing field’

By: - August 13, 2019 11:59 am

Pa. Education Secretary Pedro Rivera speaks alongside Gov. Tom Wolf in Allentown on Aug. 13.

Decrying Pennsylvania’s charter school law as one of the worst in the nation, Gov. Tom Wolf announced on Tuesday a series of executive actions that he says will increase accountability and transparency for taxpayers and school students across the commonwealth. 

Charter schools across Pennsylvania receive $1.8 billion in taxpayer funding each year and enroll 140,000 students. Unlike traditional public schools, they’re run by private management companies and boards that aren’t publicly elected. 

According to Wolf, that’s because Pennsylvaia has one of the most fiscally irresponsible charter school laws in the nation. 

“This is a problem we all have to deal with,” Wolf said Tuesday at Harrison-Morton Middle School in Allentown, where he appeared alongside public school administrators and state lawmakers. “What we’re trying to do is make sure that as students and families exercise [school] choice, we create a level playing field.”

Wolf said his reforms will hold brick-and-mortar and cyber charter schools to the same standards as traditional public schools.

The new executive actions will authorize the Pennsylvania Department of Education to recoup the cost of administering the charter school law by billing charter schools for payment processing and legal and administrative assistance, Wolf said.

They’ll also require charter schools to solicit public bids for goods and services, and to comply with new ethics standards that prevent administrators from directing public funds to themselves or their friends or families.

“We know that fairer, more consistent funding across our entire education is vital,” said Education Secretary Pedro Rivera, who is charged with overseeing Wolf’s mandates. “Accountability, fairness, equity, quality, and transparency are things we can all get behind.” 

Wolf’s plan also addresses charter school admission standards. His actions call on charter schools to draft new enrollment policies that don’t discriminate against students based on disability or race, and would also allow school districts to limit enrollment to charters with poor academic records.

“These proposals will help to build up the entire charter school system,” Wolf said. 

Public school advocates called for greater accountability for cyber charters. Then things got heated

In addition to the reforms he says he can make through executive action, Wolf also proposed legislation that would put a moratorium on new cyber-charter schools in the commonwealth and hold charter schools accountable for poor student performance.

Those bills face an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled General Assembly, which has not amended the state’s charter school law since it was passed in 1997.

The latest package of charter reform bills passed through the state House but failed to advance through Senate in June. The package garnered widespread criticism from public school advocates, who said that they did not do enough to reform charter school funding. 

Pennsylvania’s charter school law requires districts to pay tuition for each of its students that choose to enroll in a charter school. Charter school enrollment in Pennsylvania has grown by 95 percent in the past decade, Wolf said Tuesday, but tuition rates have increased by 135 percent. 

Wolf said the charter school law has forced some school districts to raise local property tax rates to cover the rising costs of charter education. 

At the same time, opponents say that charter schools have largely failed to deliver on their promise of providing a superior education alternative to public school students. 

On Tuesday, Wolf pointed to a June study from Stanford University, which found students in charter schools performed at roughly the same level as their traditional public school peers in reading and math. 

Cyber-charter schools, however, delivered reliably worse outcomes than traditional public schools. 

“I want to make it clear that there are charter schools out there doing an excellent job,” Wolf said. “Creating new and innovative educational opportunities was one intent of the charter school law, and many schools have succeeded. Unfortunately, this is not the case for all.”

The state’s leading charter school advocacy group issued a lengthy statement following Wolf’s press conference on Tuesday, implying that charter schools were left in the dark as the governor drafted his reforms.

Ana Meyers, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, took particular issue with Wolf’s proposal to bill charter schools for administrative costs incurred by the Department of Education.

“It is outrageous that charter schools will have to spend taxpayer dollars, earmarked for educating children, to navigate the red tape that politicians and bureaucrats have created,” Meyers said. “We will be watching how the Governor implements his proposal in the coming days and weeks, and are prepared to challenge this administration in court if the Charter School Law is broken in any way.”

While he has positioned himself as a staunch public school advocate, Wolf’s actions on Tuesday marked his first meaningful oversight of charter schools since he took office five years ago. 

During his tenure, Wolf has allowed most of the state’s cyber-charter schools to operate under expired charter agreements, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer

Public school advocates have also criticized Wolf for failing to repopulate the state’s charter appeals board, which can overturn rulings on charter schools made by local school boards. All of the current appointees on the board are holdovers from the Corbett administration serving expired terms.

Wolf has authority to nominate new members of the Charter Appeals Board, but hasn’t made any nominations since he took office in 2015.

This story will be updated. It was updated to clarify that a package of charter reform bills passed through the state House, but not the Senate, in June. 

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.