Pennsylvania Governor Wolf: Charter School Reform Benefits Students and Taxpayers in Southwestern PA

McKeesport, PA (STL.News) – As part of his three-part plan to address Pennsylvania’s flawed charter school law, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf announced today the Department of Education will institute new fees to fund the growing costs of administering the Charter School Law and recoup the rising costs to taxpayers.

The fee-for-service model is part of the governor’s commitment to improving charter school quality, accountability, transparency, and outcomes for students, while containing costs.  The governor’s proposal includes executive action, overhauling regulations and legislation to reform Pennsylvania’s outdated charter school law.

“Pennsylvania’s charter school law is failing students, teachers, school districts and taxpayers,” said Gov. Wolf.  “While there are high-quality charter schools, some of them, especially some cyber charter schools, are underperforming.  The state and school districts need more tools to hold charters accountable and increase educational quality.

“My plan preserves school choice, holds charters to the same standards as traditional public schools, and strengthen education in classrooms across the commonwealth.

“Despite costing taxpayers $1.8 billion last year, brick-and-mortar charter and cyber charter schools, and for-profit companies that manage many of them, are not held to the same ethical and transparency standards of traditional public schools.”

Governor Tom Wolf is taking executive action, overhauling regulations, and will propose legislation to comprehensively reform the law.  The proposal promotes innovation and choice, while ensuring that charter schools are providing a high-quality education and meeting the same standards Pennsylvanians expect from traditional public schools.

Executive Actions

At the direction of the governor, the Department of Education is developing new regulations for charter schools. The regulations will include:

  • Providing school districts with the tools to hold charter schools accountable to provide a quality education.
  • Requiring more transparency with charter school admission and enrollment policies to prevent discrimination.
  • Holding charter schools and the for-profit management companies to the same transparency standards as public schools.
  • Establishing the same ethical standards for charter school Board of Trustees and management companies that apply to public schools.
  • Requiring regular financial audits and public contract bidding.
  • Establishing requirements for charters to document costs to prevent school districts and taxpayers from being overcharged.

Fee-For-Service

The governor also announced today a new fee-for-service model to recoup the costs of thousands of hours of staff time the Department of Education incurs from implementing the Charter School Law.

For example, school districts make tuition payments to charter schools for each enrolled student.  When a dispute between the district and charter school arises, charter schools can request that PDE “redirect” payment from the school district’s state funding to the charter schools.  The department processed more than 13,500 requests of this type in 2018, a 60 percent increase in seven years.  Charter schools are the only education provider, public or private, that receives this special service from the department.

Starting Sept. 15, 2019, the requesting school will be assessed $15 per redirection payment to recoup PDEs cost of providing this service.  Additionally, new cyber charter applicants will be charged a fee that reflects the cost to review the application.  In the past this cost has been about $86,000 per applicant.  This fee will be applied to new cyber charter school applications on or after January 1, 2020.

Comprehensive Charter School Reform Legislation

In addition to executive action, the governor will propose comprehensive charter school reform legislation that would:

  • Establish performance standards that hold charter schools accountable for the educational outcomes of students and a moratorium on new cyber charter schools.
  • Cap student enrollment in low performing cyber charter schools until outcomes improve.
  • Require charter management companies be subject to the Right to Know Act, State Ethics Act, and post employee salaries on PDE’s website, similar to requirements already in place for public school districts.
  • Create fair, predictable, and equitable funding for school districts, including in the areas of special education funding and cyber charter tuition payments.
  • Establish a charter school funding commission to make recommendations on additional charter school funding reforms.

“Our laws governing the operations of charter and cyber charter schools need to be reformed,” said Sen. Jim Brewster.  “We need to bring greater accountability and transparency so that our children are well educated, and our taxpayers protected.  For too long, charter operations have been cloaked in secrecy with the law having multiple loopholes and little oversight capability.

“As a long-time advocate for charter reform, I believe the governor has offered responsible administrative changes and proposed meaningful legislative solutions.  Charters need to complement, not compete with, traditional public schools.”

Rep. Jake Wheatley added, “I want to thank Gov. Tom Wolf for taking steps to ensure that all students in Pennsylvania have access to quality education.  While many of our charter schools have been successful, like any program there is room for review and the ability to do better.  As a legislator, I am committed to working with my colleagues and Gov. Wolf to build an education system that works for everyone and ensures that all of Pennsylvania’s children have the opportunity to succeed.”

A recent report from Stanford University found overwhelmingly negative results from Pennsylvania’s cyber schools and urged the commonwealth to enact reforms.

“As the cost of educating our students steadily increases, the McKeesport Area School District maintains our commitment to promoting academic excellence in the face of devastating financial times,” said Dr. Mark P. Holtzman, superintendent of the McKeesport Area School District.  “We are continuing to do more with much less, as charter school tuition continues to deplete our limited resources.  Accountability, and other funding sources, must be established before urban school districts, like many in the Mon Valley region, are unable to meet the needs of our students.”

The governor was joined at Twin Rivers Elementary School in Allegheny County by legislators, school district superintendents and school board members and other education stakeholders.

Many education community leaders are supporting the governor’s charter school law reform plan including the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, Education Voters of Pennsylvania, Research for Action, American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania State Education Association, as well as numerous superintendents and school board members.