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.