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Wolf initiates regulatory ‘fix’ for Pennsylvania charter schools

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Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf initiated the regulatory process on Friday for some of his proposed charter school reforms that the Legislature has, so far, been unwilling to adopt.

He said most of the six new rules align with requirements school districts must also meet, from financial and auditing standards to posting nondiscrimination enrollment policies online.

“We have a responsibility to all students, parents and taxpayers to fix our broken charter school law,” Wolf said Friday. “Every child in Pennsylvania deserves a high-quality education that prepares them to succeed in life, but our current law lets some charter schools perform poorly at the expense of students enrolled in traditional district schools.”

The proposed regulations would also subject charter school trustee board members to the Public Officials and Employees Ethics Act, which sets boundaries for conflicts of interest and penalties for violations.

And the administration wants to establish application guidelines for new charters and clarify the process for reconciling payment disputes between districts and charters.

“These regulations, in combination with my bipartisan and common-sense legislative package, provide much-needed consistency, transparency and accountability, while preserving school choice,” Wolf said.

The governor has long supported revisions to the state’s 1997 charter school law that he says boost transparency and accountability for underperforming charter schools.

He’s also called for legislative changes that would standardize tuition at cyber institutions and reformulate special education funding distribution. The policies would reduce district payments to charter schools by $395 million, he said.

Currently, tuition for online charters fluctuates between $9,170 to $22,300 per student. Schools receive a special education funding amount equal to 16% of their enrollment. Critics said this outdated notion means some charters are “overpaid” for services they do not provide.

A Commonwealth Foundation analysis, however, found that public schools subtract certain tuition costs upfront – including transportation, facilities and debt services – meaning charters receive about 27% less per student than the district does, according to its data.

Charter school advocates said Wolf’s reforms will cut $99 million from special education students and shortchange cyber institutions up to $129 million.

The changes, included in House Bill 272, have yet to receive any consideration in the House Education Committee, where Republicans remain averse to policies that stifle charter school funding.

While the proposed regulations don’t propose any of his preferred financial changes, the governor’s decision to skirt the legislative process left Lenny McAllister, CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools (PCPCS), disappointed.

He told The Center Square on Friday that the regulations will "harm students and waste taxpayer money."

“Once again, the Wolf Administration is eschewing good governance for the allure of bad politics – this time with thousands of disadvantaged public charter school students across the Commonwealth put at risk,” he said. “Forcing regulations that tacitly hamper a segment of public education that is expanding at a time when Pennsylvania families demand expanded options for their children ignores an undeniable message during this pandemic.”

Cyber charter school enrollment soared last year as students fled district schools amid the uncertainty of the pandemic. Districts said the unexpected spike came at a time when reduced tax revenue and other unanticipated costs – such as personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and enhanced technology needed for remote instruction – strained already tight budgets.

Art Levinowitz, president of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and an Upper Dublin School Board member, said earlier this year his district weathered a 200% increase in cyber charter tuition alone.

McAllister said Friday the pandemic’s role in shifting more students to charter schools only follows a trend that’s been building for decades.

In April, the coalition published the results of a statewide poll that showed 69% of respondents support cyber charter schools.

The survey, administered by Susquehanna Polling and Research, included responses from more than 700 people. The findings showed strong bipartisan support for charter schools, PCPCS said.

“Reforms that improve public education and empower Pennsylvania parents both in district schools and public charter schools must involve the 253 members of the General Assembly that are directly entrusted by the voters to do this necessary work,” McAllister said. “In fact, this proposal seeks approval during the twilight of the governor’s time in office, a move that belies the 2022 election when a new governor will be elected and 90% of the seats in the General Assembly could be filled with new legislators.”

The proposed regulations now begin a lengthy approval process that starts with consideration by the General Assembly, the Independent Regulatory Review Commission and the Legislative Reference Bureau.

A 30-day comment period will open Sept. 18, after the regulations publish in the PA Bulletin. The finalized rules could take effect in 2023, the administration said.

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Tags: News, State, Pennsylvania, school

Original Author: Christen Smith, The Center Square

Original Location: Wolf initiates regulatory ‘fix’ for Pennsylvania charter schools

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