Pa. Democrats again pitch charter reform

Erin Bamer
York Dispatch
York Academy Regional Charter School kindergartener teacher Becky Frederick works with Yaviel Mendez whose class was making a thank you cards for healthcare workers Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. The charter school's art honor society created the idea to make 3,000 cards for WellSpan York Hospital frontline healthcare workers. Bill Kalina photo

Democratic state lawmakers are proposing a bill that reflects Gov. Tom Wolf's call for reform to charter school law, despite continued pushback from Republicans and local charter officials. 

Lawmakers unveiled the bill Friday afternoon. Rep. Joe Ciresi, D-Montgomery, said the bill would create $229 million in savings for public school districts, which Wolf previously proposed during his state budget address. 

Ciresi said the bill was basically the same as one that was proposed last year but wasn't heard because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-Allegheny, said the biggest difference was a new funding formula for cyber charters, which would implement a flat tuition rate. 

Lenny McAllister, CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, previously called Wolf's proposal "callously wrong." The coalition also held a virtual news conference Friday to address its issues with the proposed reform. 

Rich Jensen, CEO of Agora Cyber Charter School, said a flat tuition rate would unfairly hurt the quality of education cyber charter schools can provide to students. He said while public school officials may think they know what expenses cyber charter schools need, there are other expenses that public schools don't have. He used state assessments as an example, saying cyber charter schools have to rent facilities for the assessments and make sure students and staff have a way to travel to those buildings. 

Wolf said most school districts do understand the costs involved for cyber charters, as many offer cyber school options as well. Donna Smith, board member for Bellefonte Area School District, said her district found it is charged about four times the amount it costs to educate students in a cyber school. 

According to Smith's research, it costs an average cyber school about $5,000 to educate one student. But school districts typically pay between $13,000 and $25,000 per student for charter tuition, she said. 

The goal of the proposed bill, as expressed by several officials during Wolf's news conference, is to "hold charter schools accountable" by holding them to the same academic standards as public schools and increasing transparency in how charters spend their money. Dara Allen, CEO of City Charter High School, said during the coalition's news conference that she agreed with that goal. 

"We would like to be at the table,” Allen said. 

Ciresi and Williams argued that charter officials did have a seat at the table and were included in meetings that led to the bill's drafting. Ciresi challenged Allen's point by arguing that public school officials also are not invited to discussions when charter schools are considering their annual budgets. 

"This is about giving local control back," Ciresi said. 

Republicans, who control both chambers of the state Legislature, quickly rebuffed the Democrat-backed bill. 

Rep. Josh Kail, R-Beaver, said the proposed charter reform would enforce "the status quo" and leave Pennsylvania's charter students behind.

Wolf said he couldn't understand that argument "for the life of him" and said the proposal means to change the state's outdated charter school laws. 

Kail also argued that government regulations are not the way to hold schools accountable. He said parents can hold schools accountable if they're provided with choices for their students' education. 

More:Republican lawmakers call Wolf's draft budget 'tone deaf'

More:Charter enrollment in Pa. has spiked since COVID-19 outbreak

Earlier this year, other state Republican leaders criticized Wolf's budget proposal as "tone deaf," though they did not address his specific proposal for charter law reform. Wolf said the proposed bill has bipartisan support. Williams said the bill includes several provisions suggested by GOP lawmakers. 

“This is not about Democrat or Republican," Ciresi said. "This is all of us together."

Wolf said the spike in charter enrollment increases the urgency of the need for the proposed bill. McAllister said over the last year, Pennsylvania's charter enrollment rose by at least 20,000 students. 

Wolf said the state's current charter school law is among the worst in the U.S. He said if lawmakers do not change the law now, they will be "setting up students for failure."

The Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators released a statement Friday supporting the proposal.