Whether they know it or not, Pittsburgh taxpayers have spent the past six months in the middle of an ongoing standoff between the Democratic Wolf administration and leaders in the state Senate.
The issue at hand? The membership of a state oversight board that many Pennsylvanians have probably never heard of.
Wolf and the Senate leaders have spent months trying to agree on appointees to Pennsylvania’s Charter School Appeals Board, which can reverse local school boards’ decisions to block new charter schools or to close existing ones.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s city’s public school district has spent tens of thousands of dollars sending attorneys to appear before the board in Harrisburg, where they’ve fruitlessly tried to resolve a dispute with a local charter school network.
The Charter School Appeals Board has tried on three separate occasions to settle their case.
Each time, they’ve failed.
The dysfunction has thrust the panel into the center of a debate in Harrisburg over charter school growth and accountability in Pennsylvania. And while there’s little consensus in the Capitol over either of those issues, charter critics and supporters alike agree on one thing:
Gov. Tom Wolf, who’s fashioned himself as Pennsylvania’s public schools governor, and the state Senate have allowed the powerful appeals board to languish.
The board is chaired by state Education Secretary Pedro Rivera. But Wolf has not made a single appointment to the board since he took office in 2015, even though its five other members were appointed by his Republican predecessor, charter-friendly Gov. Tom Corbett, and are serving expired terms.
One seat on the board has been vacant for years. But Wolf has not offered any names to fill it.
Wolf’s nominees to the appeals board must be approved by the Senate, whose Republican leaders have been critical of Wolf’s recent efforts to impose new fees on charter schools and to cap enrollment at low-performing ones.
But even the most ardent charter school supporters say the board needs their collective attention.
“We need a functioning appeal board that is fully staffed,” said Ana Meyers, director of the Pennsylvania Coalition for Public Charter Schools. Pennsylvania’s charter school law “did not intend for [the appeals] process to be this burdensome.”
Many charter school critics think the board’s power should be diminished. But they also agree that it can’t keep operating in its current state.
“Harrisburg needs to get its act together,” said Susan Spicka, director of Education Voters PA, a non-profit that wants to curb the expansion of charter schools in Pennsylvania. “This board is an embarrassment to Pennsylvania as it is right now.”
The board’s limitations have been on full display in the six months it’s spent trying to resolve a case brought by Propel Charter Schools, which wants to consolidate 13 of its campuses in Pittsburgh under one administration.
On three separate occasions since June, the board has tried and failed to muster the number of votes it needs to reject Propel’s appeal. The case has cost taxpayers in Pittsburgh thousands of dollars in legal fees — a sum that’s liable to rise as the case drags on.
A spokesman for the Department of Education said Propel’s predicament is unique, and that no other case before the board has been the subject of multiple failed votes.
The stalemate is partially the result of two members of the board — including one whose children attend Propel schools — recusing themselves from the vote.
But an attorney for Pittsburgh Public Schools said the longstanding vacancy makes matters worse.
“Numerically, the fact that there’s a vacancy means it’s more difficult to get a majority, especially when people recuse themselves,” the school district’s lawyer, Lisa Colautti, told the Capital-Star in October. “That’s not a political statement, that’s a statement of fact.”
With only six voting members currently on the board, it’s possible that other contentious cases could meet the same fate.
If the board finds itself deeply divided on a charter school closure, for instance, that could mean months of uncertainty for students, teachers and taxpayers waiting for a verdict.
“Putting charter schools on hold puts kids on hold,” said Nathan Benefield, executive director of the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think-tank that promotes charter school expansion. “I don’t know why [filling this vacancy] hasn’t happened. It seems like common-sense.”
‘High priority’ but ‘high stakes’
Appointing new members of the Charter Appeals Board requires cooperation between Wolf and the Republican-controlled state Senate, which must confirm his nominees by a two-thirds majority vote.
Wolf puts forth hundreds of executive nominations each year to fill positions on state boards, commissions and judicial benches. And while these potential appointees are made public ahead of a Senate vote, each one can be the subject of months of private deal-making between Wolf and the Republican and Democrats senate leaders.
The process for selecting nominees to the charter appeals board is no different, according to a top Republican aide who’s involved in the negotiations.
“These are high-profile appointments and it’s high stakes,” Drew Crompton, lead counsel for the Senate Republican Caucus, told the Capital-Star.
Crompton said that filling seats on the charter appeals board is a “high priority” for Senate Republicans. But the Republicans caucus and Wolf’s office both acknowledge that they haven’t been able to agree on nominees.
Senate Republicans want appointees “who aren’t biased against charter schools,” Crompton said.
Wolf, meanwhile, hopes to seat board members “who have experience in public education,” his spokesman J.J. Abbott said.
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, declined to comment on the negotiations.
Abbott told the Capital-Star in October that Wolf “stands ready to nominate individuals once there is an agreement with the Senate to bring such nominations to a vote and confirm them. At this time, that has not materialized.”
But a staffer to a former Democratic governor isn’t buying that excuse.
Donna Cooper, a nonprofit executive in Philadelphia who participated in high-level negotiations as a top aide to former Gov. Ed Rendell, said she’s baffled by Wolf’s inability to secure nominees to the appeals board.
Cooper’s organization, Public Citizens for Children and Youth, wants better accountability for charter schools and has previously called on Wolf to put a moratorium on the appeals board.
The Senate is poised to act on a slew of significant judicial nominations this month, including Crompton’s own nomination to fill a vacant seat on Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court.
That “plum” appointment for the Senate Republican Caucus is a sign to Cooper that bipartisan cooperation isn’t dead in Harrisburg.
That Wolf can’t move any nominations to the charter appeals board shows that “the governor is failing to exercise appropriate political muscle to ensure the interest of local taxpayers are being protected,” Cooper said.
Abbott rejected those criticisms.
“We understand the reality of the Senate’s consenting role on nominees is frustrating to those who wish these appointments were not subject to confirmation,” Abbott said. “However, that’s how the process works. There is no indication at this point that grandstanding on nominees will help get new people appointed to the board.”
Abbott also confirmed that the administration is drafting charter reform legislation that would limit the power of the appeals board and “reaffirm the control of local elected leaders” by creating more explicit standards for the appeals board to overturn school board decisions.
It would also allow the board to penalize parties that bring “frivolous” appeals, Abbot said.
The legislation must be approved by the Legislature, which has been unable to pass substantive reforms to the state charter school law since it was first enacted in 1996.