HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf announced a series of executive steps to improve oversight of charter schools while calling on the Legislature to follow his moves with action as well.
The administration’s steps will include establishing clearer processes for charter schools to document how much they spend educating students, as well as requiring that charter school operators abide by the same ethics rules other education officials must follow.
In addition to ordering the Department of Education to act, Wolf said the Legislature should pass and send him bills that would establish a moratorium on new cyber schools, cap enrollment at poor-performing cyber schools until outcomes improve and pass fairer funding rules for charter schools.
Traditional public school officials have long complained that charter schools and computer-based cyber charter schools collect more in tuition revenue paid by the local school districts while underperforming in educating students.
Wolf said the state’s current charter school law has attained “national notoriety” for being fiscally irresponsible.
While charter schools account for only 6 percent of the schools in the state, they represent 25 percent of the schools identified as underperforming by the Department of Education.
“Today I’m announcing comprehensive charter school reform through executive action, regulation and legislation," Wolf said. "These changes will level the playing field for all taxpayer-funded public schools, strengthen the accountability and transparency of charter and cyber charter schools, and better serve all students.”
In a statement released after Wolf’s announcement, the trade group representing charter schools said it supports some of the reforms touted by the governor, but blasted the governor for not consulting charter school operators before unveiling his plan.
“There is no way that Governor Wolf would ever think of proposing reforms that affect the operations of school districts or the teaching profession without consulting the special interest groups who represent these entities in Harrisburg,” according to the statement from the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools. “Furthermore, it seems that Governor Wolf is abusing his authority as we believe that some of what he is proposing through executive order and regulatory action is contrary to the law.”
Four bills backed by the charter school group to reform charter operations passed the state House in June, and are now awaiting action in the Senate.
Wolf’s moves were welcomed by lobbying organizations for traditional schools and also got the backing of a powerful Republican, state Sen. Patrick Browne, R-Lehigh County, the chairman of the Senate appropriations committee.
“The Governor’s actions today are an indication of the seriousness of the concerns for the current funding of public charter and cyber charter schools and its effect on overall public school finance in Pennsylvania,” Browne said. “It has reached a crisis point creating the potential of significant detrimental effects on all of our students’ progress in school.”
Browne said the issue of updating the state’s charter school law has been debated at the Capitol for a decade without success. He called for Wolf to convene a special session of the General Assembly focused on finding a solution to the stalemate.
J.J. Abbott, a spokesman for Wolf said the governor will call a special session only if there’s an agreement in advance that legislative leaders are committed to passing meaningful legislation.
"We are glad the governor has recognized the crisis, which has developed in charter school funding, accountability, performance and transparency, and applaud his announced intention to prioritize action to reform this sector of education," said Nathan Mains, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.
During the 2017-18 school year, school districts paid $1.8 billion to charter schools, an increase of 10 percent —or $170 million—from the prior year, according to the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials.
How much school districts pay to charter schools is based on tuition calculation in the charter school law, not on the charters’ actual cost of educating students, according to PASBO.
Last year, regular education charter school tuition across school districts ranged from $7,800 to $21,000 per student, and special education tuition ranged from $16,600 to $54,000 per student, according to the school business officials’ group.