HARRISBURG, Pa. (Erie News Now) – The major education spending increase in this year’s budget is a win for many advocates across the state. However, some say it comes at a cost.
Gov. Wolf’s charter school regulations were approved in March by the Independent Regulatory Review Commission (IRRC) for charter and cyber charter schools. The regulations were promulgated by the administration to clarify the 25-year-old charter school law.
Those in favor of the regulations say they promoted overdue accountability and transparency. They were disappointed to see them tossed during budget negotiations.
“The only people who benefit from these regulations being passed are the bad players in the charter school industry,” said Susan Spicka, the Executive Director of Education Voters Pennsylvania.
For Spicka, some of the regulations should be a no-brainer. For example, holding charter-school trustees to the Public Official and Employee Ethics Act.
“You’re sitting on the board of a public school. You should have no financial interest in it, you should not be using your position to have financial gain. I don’t understand why the charter schools are so upset about that,” said Spicka.
Charter advocates, like Dr. Anne Clark, CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, says the regulations went too far. She’s happy to see them tossed and says the they would’ve done more harm than good. For example, having to match employee health insurance with authorizing districts.
“For a larger charter school, that may not be as much of an issue because there’s a lot of staff that they’re purchasing for. But in our very small charter schools, that would be a huge financial burden to try to match what’s happening in the authorizing district,” said Clark.
“Quite frankly, I think it was to put a financial burden on them,” said State Senator Scott Martin (R-Lancaster) who believes the regulations were an overstep by the administration.
However, Spicka says matching health care has been required under the law for decades.
“That was not breaking new ground. That is in the law, and so apparently charter schools are violating that law,” said Spicka. “To present this to the public as though this it’s some brand-new regulation that the Wolf administration is placing on them that’s going to bankrupt schools, is really disingenuous, really dishonest,” Spicka added.
Sen. Martin, who also serves as Chair of the Senate Education Committee, says most of the regulations fell outside the charter school law.
“Probably about more than two-thirds to three-quarters of it were things that fell outside the purview of law,” said Martin. “There’s a huge difference between expanding the definition of something or creating regulation for something, compared to creating new law. That falls under the purview of the General Assembly,” added Martin.
Both Clark and Martin are for accountability, but say it can’t be one-sided.
“You see the regulations on the charter school side of it, but where do you see the accountability on the authorizer side,” said Clark.
“When we talk about accountability, I’m all for that. But I want it applied across the board,” said Martin. “When we have consistently failing schools, what’s interesting is that I don’t hear the same commitment to accountability to the schools, that traditionally we’re giving the most money to across the whole state per student, yet, they continue to fail these students so that those families are looking for other opportunities,” said Sen. Martin.
Spicka says there are good and bad actors in the charter industry, just like any other industry. She believes most charters are already following these regulations anyways. She says not having the regulations means less accountability for the bad actors.
“They’re going to receive about three-billion taxpayer dollars. And when that money is not spent educating children, that is a loss for the students of the charter schools. It’s a loss for the taxpayers who pay the bills. It’s a loss for Pennsylvania as a whole,” said Spicka, who also raised concerns about the same level of funding for brick-and-mortar charters and cyber charters.
“With Pennsylvania’s cyber charter schools, they receive the same amount of funding as brick-and-mortar charter schools do, but they don’t have the same overhead. They don’t have to have custodians. They don’t have to have school security. They don’t have to have groundskeepers. They have fewer teachers and support for students,” said Spicka. “But they’re getting paid as though they’re brick and mortar buildings,” she added.
“It’s going to take both sides working- charter schools and authorizers, charter schools or PDE, to come to the table and say ‘okay, what do you want it to look like.’ The Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools is ready and willing to train all of our charter school leaders,” said Clark. “Your schools are your anchors to your community, and the schools really are the community hub and they anchor to every business around them,” she added.
Even though both sides saw short-term victories with funding increases in this year’s budget, the long-term debate over charter reform is likely far from over.