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Charter backers advocate for authorizers

| Monday, March 25, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

PHILADELPHIA — With the cost and quality of charter schools dominating the state's public education debate, lawmakers face at least a dozen bills seeking better accountability of the publicly financed but independently run schools.

Much of the legislation focuses on funding formulas and audits. Yet some charter backers say what's missing is a provision for independent statewide authorizers — entities to ensure the operation of only high-quality charters.

“Great authorizing makes for great schools, both in terms of achievement and financial and operational accountability,” said Jeanne Allen, president of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform.

Allen is among those advocating for Pennsylvania to join New York, Michigan and Indiana, which use independent agencies to evaluate applications by would-be charter operators and monitor the schools' progress before granting renewals.

Charter operators apply to local districts for approval. Some say that has led to a patchwork of standards and oversight.

“It was sort of a Wild West situation, where some districts have done a very good job, and others have not,” said Robert Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.

The quality of Pennsylvania's 175 charters is a hot issue. Eight cyber charter applications were recently rejected for academic and fiscal deficiencies; the auditor general this month alleged several improper charter school leasing arrangements; and state Rep. James Roebuck, D-West Philadelphia, highlighted 44 troubled charters in introducing reform legislation last week.

Critics say charters drain resources from their district-operated counterparts without offering a better education. Supporters contend the alternative schools, which enroll about 5 percent of students statewide, offer innovative alternatives to traditional schools.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association opposes authorizers.

“They would be making funding decisions for a local community, and there would be no accountability back to those people,” spokesman Steve Robinson said.

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