Wednesday, April 12, 2017

PA: Charter Reform Sort of Revisited

Pennsylvania charter law is rather a mess. In April of 2016,  State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale issued a blistering report, dubbing PA charter law the "worst in the nation." There have been occasional legislative attempts to address the issue, but these bills have often confused "reform" with "give charters more freedom and opportunities to suck up public tax dollars."

Harrisburg has a history of using charter reform as a fig leaf to cover up charter giveaways. Early egregious attempts included a bill that would have taken a swipe at cyberschool funding but also would have made all sorts of folks authorizers of charter schools, making it infinitely easier to launch one in PA. There was an attempt to fix things, sort of,  back in 2015-2016 with proposed HB 530, a bill that public school organizations like the school board association declared a non-starter because it loosened accountability on charters, allowed the state charter appeal board to overrule local districts, and didn't address the out-of-control costs of charters in Pennsylvania. The reasons to oppose the bill were many. The bill passed both the house and senate, but was ultimately a victim of the Great Budget Snafu of 2016 and was last seen disappearing into the rules committee in June of 2016.

Now it's back.

Representative Mike Reese has revamped HB 530 into HB 97. Reese represents District 59 and has an actual BS in Education, though he went on for an MBA.

Here's his version of what HB 97 does. Highlights include:

* Allow an adjustmet in PA's ridiculous cyber-school payment system-- but only for two years.

* Set up a commission to study charter school funding.

* Limit charter school's excess fund balances (money that's just parked in the bank).

* Develop a performance matrix for "monitoring and improving academic quality"

* Charter teacher evaluation systems that "mirror" the public system.

* Create system to allow charter consolidation. The system would (this gets italics) leave initial and renewal approval authority in hands of local school districts.

* Make "more balanced" membership of charter appeal board.

* Give charters first dibs on any unused public school buildings.

And my personal favorite--

* Allow families with multiple cyber-school children to turn down multiple computers, printers and monitors. Because there have been plenty of cyber families complaining about being forced to accept multiple free computers.

So, is this actual improvement or reform?

If we dig into the actual bill (75 pages, so you're welcome), what do we find.

Some items are relatively minor. One item allows charters to put students in dual enrollment arrangements with colleges or universities. But then there are other parts.

The Charter School Funding Advisory Commission is supposed to "examine how charter school entity finances affect opportunities for teachers, parents, pupils and community members to establish and maintain schools that operate independently from existing school district structures" and while I appreciate that this does away with the whole "charters are public schools" baloney, it does skip past the questions of how, why or if charter schools should be pursued at all. The membership of the committee will be four representatives (two from each party, four senators (two from each party), the secretary of education, a wild card chosen by the governor, a business manager from a charter school, a business manager from a cyber charter, a business manager from a rural district, and a business manager from an urban school district. So no actual educators.

The committee is given the tasks of 1) meeting with charter representatives, school district personnel, and other public ed reps, 2) review charter finance laws across the nation, and 3) assess the actual cost of cyber-schooling students.

The committee is to make recommendations about an independent state-level authorization board, because charter folks hate that in most of PA, charters must be authorized by local school districts, which means charter operators must get the district declared FUBAR by the state, or get pro-charter people on board, or find a board that wants to slit its own throat by opening charters. The committee is also supposed to make recommendations about funding, and also, somehow how to use the matrix that we're going to get to for comparing schools. Plus other financial odds and ends.

They are to crank out their report in twelve months.

Entity. The bill widely replaces "charter school" with "charter school entity." Presumably that opens the door for any kind of education-flavored business and releases said business from any requiremet to look like a proper school.

Religious Loophole. Under the bill, it would not be a violation of the non-sectarian  requirement if the charter provides a "discrete and separate entrance" to the school part of an otherwise religious structure-- in other words, if your charter school is in a church, but students can enter through a back door and not the sanctuary. Also, "if the religious objects and symbols within the portion of the facility utilized by the school are covered or removed to the extent reasonably feasible" (emphasis mine) then you are good to go.

Ethics. Charter school officials will have to file a statement of financial interest with the State Ethics Commission.There are all sorts of new paragraphs forbidding various relationships to try to rue out self-dealing. And there are many new rules about who can be a charter trustee. Also, if you're convicted of a felony, fraud, theft, or some sort of moral turpitude, you'll be fired from your administrator job or charter board position. Because somehow we've arrived at a place where that has to be spelled out.

Sunshine. Well, this is interesting. The law would require charter's to have at least five nonrelated voting members, and at least one of them should have a child attending the school (unless it's a charter mainly serving adjudicated youth). And that board must comply with the same sunshine act that applies to public school boards.

Further down in the bill we find the stipulation that all charter records must be open to the local school board, and that charters must comply with FERPA. The charter should also form an independent audit committee, which must perform a thorough audit that includes enrollment and accounting for all money that passes in or out. The school's budget and various federal forms should be available "upon request."

Standard Application. Remember how charters don't like having to go to local school boards to get authorization to get their chartery selves allowed? Here's a bit of a solution-- the stae will create a one-size-fits-all application form, so that everyone has to use the same process. The good news here is that the list of what must be on the application is significantly increased by HB 97, including information about who's in charge, the CMO's track record, a clear description of responsibilities and who has them, and a draft contract laying out how the charter's success (or lack thereof) will be judged. Bad news for mom and pop charters.

How long can a charter flounder? The state would now give you five full years to get your act together. More than enough to completely waste half of a child's educational career. Both new and renewal charters would be for five-year spans. If they do well, they can be renewed for ten years. And if the school has not satisfied the academic quality benchmark-- yeah, still can get a five year renewal.

Balancing the charter appeal board. This is the group that can certify or override the decision of the local district. HB 97 would like to "balance" this group by adding more charter people, including switching the parent seat to a parent of a charter student seat. The resulting board would be far more charter-friendly. This would be the group that could tell taxpayers in your district that they are going to help support a charter school even though they and their duly-elected school board rejected it.

Building (Expansion). Most of this section is as promised-- charters get first grab of buildings that public schools can't fill. However, buried in this section is the addition that any charter that doesn't have a student enrollment cap "is permitted to operate its school at more than one location." Get a charter with no cap, and you can expand at will.

This would be a good time to remind you that under PA law, a charter can't be capped unless it agrees to be capped. 

Booze. This is one of those pieces of law where you just know there's a story that goes with it. Anyway, if a charter is caught serving or selling alcohol, it can be fined $1,000 the first time and $5,000 every time after.

Applications. There will be a standard form. Students will be assigned position on waiting list randomly. There's repeated addition of "regional charter school" to this section, as well as a rule tat students within the charter cachment area must get priority.

Pre-K Exemption. If your district doesn't offer Pre-K for four-year-olds, it doesn't have to make payments to a charter that does.

Cyber Reimbursement. The bill adds a bunch of new calculated exemptions to how a district computes the cost of sending a child to cyber-school. What it doesn't do is factor in any sort of numbers related to the actual cost of running a cyber school. Nor does it address the question of why Pennsylvania continues to fund these dens of cyber failure at all, when they have proven to be largely scams and wastes of time and money.

Evaluating educators. HB 97 has a brand spanking new section that says charter teachers must be evaluated using some of the same crappy test-based measures used in public schools. So, welcome to VAM, charter teachers. Is it progress to have charters suffer under the same bad and ineffective measures that hit public schools? I'm not really sure, but there it is in the bill-- you must use test scores and three other things of some sort.

Mergers and Acquisitions. Oh, there are many new rules for how charters may grow. Some of this comes down to some pretty fine tuning-- the bill's authors heard the objections to just letting charters merge and expand willy nilly, so they added the qualifier that the merger or expansion must be renewed/authorized by a local school board-- but the local school board that approved original charter, meaning that one charter-friendly school board could potentially okay a charter expansion into neighboring districts. And there is a whole bunch of information about how a charter can appeal the decision of the local board.

Unassigned fund balance. Charters can only bank 12% to 16% of their total budget, depending on how large that budget is. PA public schools have had rules against UFB for years now, and they easily dodge them by giving the funds they've parked in a bank some sort of designation, as in "That's not an unassigned ten million dollars sitting there-- that's a capital improvement fund waiting patiently for a project we haven't even thought of yet." Charters should have no problem making similar adaptations-- or they could just use the fund balance to pay their people a ton of money.

The Performance Matrix. Here's the part where the legislature, after giving the local school board all sorts of control and voice in these matters, takes it all away. The state will lay out exactly how the charter schools must be evaluated and on what. The On What will include (but not be limited to) student test scores, VAM scores, attendance, attrition rates, graduation rates, school safety, "other" standardized test scores (?!), parent satisfaction, accreditation, plus other stuff, like measures of teacher effectiveness (aka test scores yet again). The performance matrix will also include some sort of academic quality benchmark.

Whatever the state comes up with, nobody is allowed to use anything else. In other words, a charter may not be at all acceptable to the local taxpayers or school board, but if the state paperwork looks good, then that's tough noogies for local taxpayers. The local board must use the performance matrix as its "primary factor" in deciding the fate of the school. Which means that all the power the law puts into local school boards is actually no power at all-- charters will live or die at the pleasure of the state.

How will this matrix be developed? The state department of ed will convene a statewide advisory committee that will include a minimum of seven representatives from charter schools, regional charters, cyber charters, department folks, and school district personnel.

Bottom line:

No doubt more legally adept minds than mine will be looking at this bill that just popped up and is expected to zip trough legislature soon (the fast track is always a sign of super great lawmaking). But here's what I see.

On the one hand, some much-needed accountability and transparency rules for charter schools in Pennsylvania.

On the other hand, the bill falls far short in stopping cyber charters from sucking the money out of public schools and providing no real benefits or service in return.

On the other other hand, the bill wants to look like its resting control of charter decisions with local school districts while actually undercutting all of it by setting the rules in Harrisburg, and making sure that charters have a big say in how those rules are set, which is fine if you think that cigarette companies should help set smoking rules.

This is not a win for public schools, and not a real step forward in charter accountability. Let's hope this bill fails and a better one appears some day.

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