President Obama last week proclaimed May 1-7 “National Charter Schools Week,” praising charters for their “innovation” and calling on “[s]tates and communities to support high-quality public schools, including charter schools.” Yet, even as thousands of Pennsylvania students sit on charter waitlists, Gov. Wolf has taken every opportunity to undercut the state’s charters.
Education Savings Accounts (ESA) empower parents to design the best educational experience for their children.
Can Pennsylvania do better when it comes to educating our children? Absolutely. But playing “myths for money” will never lead to real solutions for families and students.
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In addition to general appropriations (SB 1073) and the fiscal code (SB 1320), lawmakers are finalizing language in the education code, HB 530. This legislation promises significant reforms to Pennsylvania’s charter school law.
Here’s the bottom line on HB 530: It is a sweeping bill that includes a number of positive provisions, but also imposes steep funding cuts on cyber charter schools.
Critically, an amendment by Speaker Mike Turzai increases the available tax credits for the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program by $25 million. The EITC, which provides tens of thousands of private school scholarships to students in need, is a pillar of school choice in Pennsylvania. Thanks to the Turzai amendment, $75 million in tax credits would be available for K-12 scholarships, $37.5 million for educational improvement organizations, and $12.5 million for pre-K scholarships.
A large EITC increase would be welcome news, and it is one of the best aspects of HB 530.
On the other hand, the bill increases payment deductions that districts may claim when sending funds to cyber charters. The exact magnitude of this funding cut is unclear, but some cyber school administrators suggest it could reach as high as $27 million per year. These cuts, while less severe than earlier versions of HB 530, are particularly punitive given that spending for traditional public school continues to grow on autopilot.
Additionally, previous iterations of HB 530 included direct pay language for cyber charters, which would ensure cybers receive funding from the state—rather than being stuck in limbo waiting for overdue funds from districts. The direct pay provision was amended out of the bill. (Update: A reader informs us this was removed at the request of cyber schools, who may have changed their view on the subject after last year's budget impasse.)
What else is included in HB 530? Here are some of the notable provisions and regulations:
- A statewide funding commission, composed of lawmakers and school administrators, tasked with making recommendations about how charter schools are funded.
- Clarification that cyber schools may utilize in-person instruction for students with special needs.
- Increased financial disclosure regulations for charter school administrators.
- Increased regulations on charter school debt payment.
- A standardized application will be created by the Department of Education for charter applicants and charters requesting renewal.
- Expanded initial charter terms from three to five years, and renewal terms from five to ten years.
- School districts, intermediate units, and public universities must provide cyber charters with reasonable access to facilities for the purpose of administering standardized tests.
- Clarifies that charter schools are not subject to caps on enrollment.
- Charter schools are granted the right of first refusal to purchase or lease unused public school buildings.
- Allows two or more charter schools to consolidate into a “multiple charter school organization.”
- Expands the size of the Charter School Appeal Board.
- Limits the amount of funding charter schools may hold in unassigned reserve funds, and requires that funds in excess of these limits be refunded to school districts. This provision is notable, given the massive reserve funds that many school districts have accumulated.
Although aspects of the law will be welcome news for charter schools, such sweeping reforms may have been better considered in smaller pieces of legislation, rather than one comprehensive bill. The EITC increase, however, is unquestionably a terrific development.
HB 530 is expected to be voted in the House later today, at which point it will still need to pass the Senate.
The SAT, or Scholastic Aptitude Test, is an important indicator of public education quality in Pennsylvania. Currently, the commonwealth ranks 36th out of the 50 states and 3 US territories (Washington DC, Puerto Rico, and US Virgin Islands). That's one place higher than last year.
A large percentage of Pennsylvania students take the SAT, which does contribute to low overall performance. Average SAT scores are higher in states with lower test participation, typically because only the highest performing students sit for the test. Among states with a participation rate of at least 70 percent, Pennsylvania ranks 6th.
Historical data shows SAT scores are largely unchanged since 1970. Meanwhile, state education spending per student has increased 63 percent. This long-term trend undermines constant calls for more education spending to improve public schools.
To increase student achievement, we must change focus from more spending to reforms that change how tax dollars are spent. One such reform is the creation of education savings accounts, which will give parents stronger control over how, and where, their son or daughter will best succeed.
Below is a table of all states scores and participation rates. Details on Pennsylvania’s statewide performance report can be found here.
It’s safe to assume Governor Tom Wolf and President Barack Obama agree on many policy issues. But when it comes to public charter schools, Wolf and Obama are worlds apart.
The president recently issued a proclamation honoring May 1 through May 7 as National Charter Schools Week. In his statement, Obama explained the important role charters play in America’s education system:
Supporting some of our Nation's underserved communities, [charters] can ignite imagination and nourish the minds of America's young people while finding new ways of educating them and equipping them with the knowledge they need to succeed. With the flexibility to develop new methods for educating our youth, and to develop remedies that could help underperforming schools, these innovative and autonomous public schools often offer lessons that can be applied in other institutions of learning across our country, including in traditional public schools.
Although charter schools are lifelines for tens of thousands of Pennsylvania families, Gov. Wolf’s policies are decidedly hostile to charter students. Consider his actions since assuming office:
- Last March, Wolf removed Bill Green as chairman of Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission (SRC) after the SRC approved merely 5 of 39 applicants from new charter schools. This was a clear message that even tepid support for charters will not be tolerated—and it prompted a lawsuit from Green seeking to regain his position as chair. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer—not exactly a bastion of school choice ideology—Green has a strong case.
- Wolf’s budget proposals in 2015 and 2016 each includes massive cuts to cyber charter schools—reducing their revenue by one-third—and deny all charters the right to save new funds in their “rainy day” reserves.
- Wolf undermined the recovery plan in York City School District, effectively forcing out the district’s chief recovery officer as retribution for his support of charter schools.
- Last summer, Wolf attempted to balance Chester Upland’s budget on the backs of special education charter students. Chester students are otherwise relegated to a school system Wolf admits “failed its students” and has been “mismanaged for over 25 years.”
A recent poll from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools finds nearly 8 in 10 surveyed support parents being able to choose their child’s public school. Over half of parents surveyed who are supportive of charter schools cited lack of access as the main reason they don’t send their child to a charter.
Perhaps Gov. Wolf should pay heed to the thousands of families benefiting from charter schools—not to mention President Obama—and rethink his opposition to these effective educational options.
The dust has settled on the 2016-17 budget debate—at least for the moment. Some people hail the agreement as an example of what Harrisburg can accomplish when two parties work together. Others defend it as an improvement over previous budgets and the least bad option under the circumstances. These ...