Harrisburg – Oct. 6, 2016 – A new, sweeping charter school reform proposal intended to address transparency, fiscal solvency and accountability issues was detailed today by state Sen. Jim Brewster (D-Allegheny/Westmoreland).
“Charter schools must be accountable to the taxpayer,” Brewster said. “They must demonstrate that they are fiscally sound and properly supported by the community.
“Recent reports and audits by the state auditor general revealed that the current charter school law is full of gaping holes that puts traditional public schools at a real disadvantage in trying to manage the impact of charter schools on their operations.”
Brewster said his reform proposal includes suggestions offered by state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale over the last several years to produce a comprehensive reform of charter and cyber charter schools.
“It has become abundantly clear that systemic changes are needed in how brick and mortar and cyber charters operate in Pennsylvania,” Brewster said. “There is a growing frustration that charters are unaccountable.
“The auditor general has made a number of worthwhile recommendations and I’ve combined some of these ideas with other features to produce what I believe is an excellent starting point for comprehensive reform.”
Brewster said it is important to keep in mind that the original purpose of charter schools was to be an outlet for education innovation and share best practices with the school district.
The McKeesport lawmaker said his plan includes:
- Requiring local school boards to sign off on any financing arrangement with a local industrial development authority or other government entity for a new charter school building project in excess of $1 million;
- Compelling charter schools to post a bond, other type of surety, or agree to a payment escrow arrangement to ensure that they have the financial capability to operate for the entire school year;
- Limiting the scope of the state Charter School Appeal Board to solely determining whether the local school board acted appropriately in reviewing charter school applications;
- Requiring officials from the state Department of Education to visit the proposed site of a charter school to ascertain the condition of its physical plant. Their report will then be made a part of the charter application;
- Mandating that a charter school applicant obtain approval from multiple school districts if the charter school draws more than 25 students from a specific district;
- Upgrading accountability by requiring a quarterly report on the operations of the charter school to the local school board – with the report delivered in person by a charter school official;
- Making a structured financial impact statement, consisting of an estimation of enrollment multiplied by tuition payments, part of the charter school application. The impact statement may serve as the justification for denial of a charter application;
- Increasing the percentage of certified teachers from 75 percent to 90 percent of faculty, after grandfathering in current faculty;
- Prohibiting charter board members from receiving payments for school lease arrangements. This issue was highlighted in Agosto in the auditor general’s report; and
- Imposing a moratorium on the approval of new cyber-charter schools, given the recent reports of poor test scores.
Brewster said these reform provisions are a beginning and that other elements could be added.
“We need to dig deep and look critically at the charter law to make sweeping changes,” Brewster said. “In this year alone, the auditor general has pointed out that the reimbursement process is flawed, that there were too many reimbursement appeals and that the cyber charter law reeked with ethical issues, poor oversight and a lack of transparency.
“It is clear that the charter law is not helping schools, charters themselves or the taxpayers.”
In 2014, DePasquale released his recommendations to improve the charter law. These suggestions called for an independent board to oversee charter school processes and functions — including lease reimbursements and student enrollment. He also suggested public hearings involving charter changes, limits on fund balances and guidelines on calculating teacher certification benchmarks.
Brewster said a responsible and balanced reform approach can attract support from charter advocates as well as those who have been critical of the proliferation of charter schools. He said his plan is an excellent platform for creating a partnership between charters and traditional public schools.
“The reform plan that I am offering is intended to bring charters and traditional public schools together,” Brewster said. “Children should be guaranteed a quality education and taxpayers assured that their tax dollars are being used wisely.”
The McKeesport lawmaker said he realizes that time is short this year to make any move toward charter reform, but that by introducing legislation now there will be greater awareness of the issues involved in crafting meaningful reform. He said the measure will also be reintroduced next session.
“We need a reasonable starting point to engage all sides in a substantive dialogue,” Brewster said.
Brewster said that he hoped that many of these issues will be discussed at a Senate Democratic Policy Committee hearing on Oct. 13 at the Monroeville Municipal Building in Monroeville.