Gov. Wolf calls for sweeping reforms for charter schools in Pennsylvania |

Gov. Wolf calls for sweeping reforms for charter schools in Pennsylvania

Deb Erdley

Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday vowed to level the playing field between Pennsylvania’s traditional public schools and charter and cyber charter schools.

He said the latter lack accountability and transparency and are draining millions of dollars from struggling school districts.

Calling the state’s 22-year-old public charter school law flawed and outdated, Wolf said he plans to introduce a sweeping array of executive orders and will propose legislation to require additional transparency and accountability from charter and cyber charter schools that enroll about 140,000 students across Pennsylvania at a cost of $1.8 billion a year to taxpayers.

While the majority of brick-and-mortar charter schools are in urban areas, rural and suburban school districts feel the impact of charter school costs when students leave to enroll in cyber charter schools.

The governor’s proposals come on the heels of months of complaints from public school advocates in the state who say school districts are being made to pay through the nose when students leave for charter and cyber charter schools that have little accountability to the public. When a student leaves a traditional school for a charter, the amount the district spends per pupil goes with them to the alternate school.

Among other things, Wolf’s proposals would require charter schools to adhere to public school conflict of interest and bidding policies, provide regular financial audits and adopt policies prohibiting discrimination in admissions.

His announcement brought cheers from public school advocates who have complained about the increasing costs charter and cyber charters are exacting along with protests from charter supporters who say they often end up enrolling students who would have left school altogether if they did not exist.

Ana Meyers, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, took issue with Wolf’s assertions and said her group will be closely scrutinizing his proposals.

“We were blindsided by this. We did not realize this was coming until late last week,” Meyers said. “We are disappointed we were not included in the discussion, but that is par for this administration.”

She said it appears Wolf may be overstepping his authority.

“If this is contrary to the law, we will take this administration to court. We will challenge them in court,” she said.

Nathan Benefield, vice president and chief operating officer of the free market Commonwealth Foundation, said Wolf is giving short shrift to school choice.

“Gov. Wolf’s charter school overhaul would cut funding for charters, cap enrollment and place a moratorium on new cyber charter schools, even as tens of thousands of students are on waiting lists for charter schools across the state. In short, it would deny families the schooling options they seek,” Benefield said.

The Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials applauded Wolf. Association officials said the rapidly increasing cost of charter schools meant that 37 cents of every new dollar in property taxes in 2017-18 went directly to charter schools.

“Charter school tuition is one of the largest areas of mandated cost growth for school districts. During the 2017-18 school year, school districts paid $1.8 billion to charter schools, an increase of 10% — or $170 million — from the prior year,” PASBO officials said in a release hailing the governor’s announcement.

In Harrisburg, calls for charter school reforms have come from both sides of the aisle in recent years.

State Rep. Mike Reese, R-Mt. Pleasant, estimates he has introduced sweeping charter school reform bills at least five times, with no progress.

State Sen. Jim Brewster, a McKeesport Democrat who serves on the Senate Education Committee, said he has been pushing for legislation to reform the state’s charter school bill for five years and will gladly sign onto Wolf’s proposals.

He said many of the 19 school districts in his district straddling Allegheny and Westmoreland counties are struggling with charter school bills.

“Right now, the taxpayers who really are concerned about the school taxes are paying a lot more because they are paying two public school systems and they don’t even know that,” Brewster said.

“I got a mailer the other day inviting me to apply to send my child to a tuition-free charter school. They aren’t tuition-free. Taxpayers are paying for them,” he said.

Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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