OPED: Charter school bill will remain a priority

Reps. Seth Grove and Mike Reese
Pennsylvania House of Representatives
Tuesday, August 20, 2013
Students return to Helen Thackston Charter School Wednesday with all construction completed. Bill Kalina photo
  • Some charter schools have become reputable and can clearly demonstrate their students are learning.
  • Unfortunately, other charter schools aren’t performing as well.

As members of the House Education Committee, we applaud the Senate’s passage of House Bill 97 — an important charter-education reform measure that proposes to revise Pennsylvania’s funding formula for charter schools as well impose new academic, accountability and ethics standards.

These topics have needed addressed for some time, and we are fortunate to have like-minded colleagues in Sens. John Eichelberger, R-Blair/Cumberland/Franklin/Fulton/Huntingdon, and Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, who have been equally dedicated to this topic.

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Pennsylvania’s history with charter education dates back to 1997, when the commonwealth passed legislation allowing public charter schools to set up shop and offer families alternatives when considering their children’s education.

State Rep. Seth Grove, (R) sits with the York Dispatch editorial board for a discussion about taxes and the state budget. Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016. John A. Pavoncello photo

This was considered groundbreaking not only because parents were enabled with more choices, but because charter schools were afforded some leeway regarding curriculum and teaching methodologies.

A few years later, a growth in computer technology led to yet another method of education — teaching children over the internet. Currently, there are 14 cyber charter schools using a model that allows their students to log on to the school’s website and go to school “online.”

The differences between traditional public schools and charter schools also extend to their organizational structure. Instead of being run by local school boards, charter programs are organized by boards of trustees. While some of Pennsylvania’s laws regarding education apply to charter schools, some do not.

Some charter schools, over the last 20 years, have become reputable in their communities and can clearly demonstrate that children attending their schools are learning.

Unfortunately, other charter schools aren’t performing as well.

House Bill 97 aims to revise the charter-school oversight standards to make more information available to the local school districts that authorize them. This includes the availability of financial documents, test scores and teacher-certification information.

The legislation also requires charter schools to provide their authorizers with their annual budgets and identify the source of funding for all expenditures. Any excess unassigned funds previously collected by a charter school would be returned to the home school district.

The bill also establishes procedures that have never before been in place in Pennsylvania. These include, but are not limited to:

  • A new performance matrix to be developed by the state Board of Education to help school districts evaluate the performance of charter schools.
  • A new, more detailed, standard application for new charter schools and for charter school renewals.
  • Increased, ongoing access by school districts to the records and facilities of the charter school to ensure that the charter school is in compliance with its charter and all legal requirements and is engaging in sound financial practices.
  • A requirement that a charter school form an independent audit committee to review annually a complete, certified audit that includes, among other things, review of internal controls, receipts and reimbursements, annual federal and state tax filings, financial statements, contract selection processes and all board policies and procedures, which also must be provided to the school district.
  •  Access to budgets of the charter school and any affiliated charter school foundation.

In addition, House Bill 97 establishes a Charter School Funding Advisory Commission, which will communicate to legislators and the governor on what further improvements should be made to the funding formula used to fund charter schools.

This funding commission will be tasked with calculating the actual per-pupil cost of cyber education and determine if cyber charter schools should receive their funding based on that actual cost or continue to receive funding based on what the per-pupil cost is at a student’s home school district.

House Bill 97 is the product of a collaborative effort by many stakeholders within the education field. This includes professionals from both traditional public schools and charter schools. The legislative language includes necessary reform measures to assure that children attending these schools are receiving a quality education and give taxpayers a better understanding as to how these schools are being funded and operated.

The current version of House Bill 97 was passed by the Senate and is being considered by the House for a second time. We will continue working with our colleagues in both chambers to pass this important legislation.

— State Rep. Seth Grove is a Republican from Dover Township representing the 196th District, and state Rep. Mike Reese is a Republican from Mount Pleasant representing the 59th District.