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Brewster: Charter School Reform Will Create Partnerships, Reward Students and Protect Taxpayers

The relationship between school districts, charter schools, students and taxpayers would be fundamentally realigned and restructured if comprehensive charter school reform legislation soon to be introduced by state Sen. Jim Brewster (D-Allegheny/Westmoreland) was enacted, the lawmaker said today.

education“The goal of my legislation is to realign and redefine how local school districts, charter schools, students and taxpayers interact,” Brewster said. “The legislation is heavy on accountability to the local taxpayers and school board; flexible enough for charters and cyber charters to function as they were designed; and full of sensible reforms that will result in qualitative and fiscal improvements over the long haul.”

Brewster said that he is proposing two separate legislative proposals that will, as a package, accomplish his goal of having charters and local school boards working in concert to promote educational opportunities.

“The evidence points to a system that has devolved into an unrecognizable unaccountable approach to education that is fueled by outside interests,” Brewster said. “My proposal organizes the disjointed pieces that are now strewn across the education spectrum into a pattern that will help children and ensure that taxpayer concerns are addressed.”

“Charters were intended to be an outlet for innovative education and function within the goals of the school district, not be an ad hoc group attached by a financial cord to local taxpayers,” Brewster said.

Brewster’s plan includes financial reforms such as the following:

  • Requiring charter schools to post a surety bond to guarantee that the school can operate through the year;
  • Forcing charter schools to gain the approval of the host school board for the financing of new charter school construction in excess of $1 million if the project is financed through a local industrial development group or taxpayer-backed development agency;
  • Compelling charter schools to include a detailed financial impact statement as part of a charter school application;
  • Prohibiting lease payments to charter school board members;
  • Requiring charter schools to invoice for actual services provided to special education students;
  • Allowing traditional public schools to place privately donated funds into special accounts and keep these funds segregated from charter school dollars;
  • Returning any investment funds or interest accrued by charters not used to pay operating or necessary expenses back to the host school district;
  • Waiving the requirement that charter school students be bussed by a school district if the host school district does not transport its own students;
  • Prohibiting the use of taxpayer dollars in advertising about the school, its facilities or mission plus halting the use of taxpayer funds for membership in advocacy associations or lobbying.

“Redefining the relationship between charter schools, cyber charters and traditional schools involves more than simply changing how bills are paid and schools financed,” Brewster said. “We have to address issues on multiple levels to ensure that systemic reform takes hold.”

One of the major areas of focus in Brewster’s legislation relates to upgrading accountability to students and taxpayers. Brewster said his legislation includes the following:

  • Requiring charter schools to gain approval from multiple school districts if students are drawn from outside the host district, as a part of the application process;
  • Forcing charter schools to report quarterly and, in person, to the host school district, with copies of the report sent to all school districts from which students are drawn;
  • Increasing the percentage of certified teachers from its current 75 percent to 90 percent, while grandfathering the current faculty to lessen disruptions;
  • Imposing a moratorium on the approval of new cyber charter schools.

Brewster said that one of the major issues he confronted in developing his legislation was the complex role that the state Charter Appeal Board (CAB) plays in the relationship between charter schools and traditional public schools. He said the current structure is in dire need of reform.

“What I am proposing is an entirely new role for the appeal board and how it interacts with local school boards,” Brewster said. “The board has an authoritarian role in the charter approval process that, in many ways, makes local school boards subservient.

“An appeal board, situated in Harrisburg and not accountable to local taxpayers, should not be able to wipe away a decision by a local school board that disapproves a charter application.”

The reform proposal includes several provisions related to the CAB, including the following:

  • Limiting the CAB to determining whether the local school board acted appropriately during the review of an application for a charter;
  • Requiring that officials from the state Department of Education visit the site of a proposed charter school. The report will become part of the charter school’s application and become part of the record on appeal to the CAB;
  • Mandating that the impact of the charter school on the fiscal health of the school district be considered as a part of the appeal.

Brewster said that the proposed changes in his legislation are significant, but the relationship between charters, cyber charters and traditional public schools has been strained and that a reset is warranted.

“Taxpayers, students of both charter and traditional schools, parents, teachers, administrators and state officials are tangled up in web of ineffective charter laws, outdated policies and destructive politics,” Brewster said. “My plan provides an opportunity to restructure and realign charter schools within the traditional school system.”

Brewster said that he expects to introduce the package of bills in the next couple weeks.

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