Is Pa. ready for statewide charter school authorizer?
BY KATHY MATHESON, Associated Press
PHILADELPHIA -- With the cost and quality of charter schools dominating the public education debate in Pennsylvania, lawmakers face at least a dozen major bills seeking better accountability and governance of such schools, which are publicly financed but independently run.
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 that can arguably weed out bad apples and ensure the operation of only high-quality charters.
Jeanne Allen, president of Washington-based Center for Education Reform, is among those advocating for Pennsylvania to join states including New York, Michigan and Indiana that use independent agencies to evaluate applications by would-be charter operators and monitor the schools' progress before granting renewals.
Currently, charter operators in Pennsylvania apply to local districts for approval. It's a process that some say has created a patchwork of standards and oversight because volunteer school boards don't have dedicated experts or uniform guidelines for assessing proposals.
"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 recently were rejected because of academic and fiscal deficiencies; the auditor general this month alleged several improper charter school leasing arrangements; and state Rep. James Roebuck highlighted 44 troubled charters in introducing sweeping reform legislation last week.
Critics say charters drain resources from their district-operated counterparts without offering a better education. But supporters contend the alternative schools -- which enroll about 5 percent of students statewide -- offer innovative and sometimes safer alternatives to traditional schools.
The Pennsylvania School Boards Association opposes statewide authorizers because they give power to officials far removed from the ground-level effect of their rulings. "They would be making decisions, funding decisions, for a local community, and there would be no accountability back to those people," said spokesman Steve Robinson.
About half of U.S. states have some kind of independent commission to sanction charters, according to the Chicago-based National Association of Charter School Authorizers. That includes autonomous boards, university institutes, nonprofit agencies and noneducational municipal entities. Association president Greg Richmond conceded statewide authorizers can be "a hard sell" to legislatures because lawmakers don't want to create more bureaucracy or ask districts to give up local control. But he said the trend is growing as more people realize this is "specialized work that needs to be done well."
Some states allow districts to continue granting charters even with the presence of a statewide authorizer. That can lead to problems, he noted, because operators turned down by one agency might just apply to another.
The Corbett administration supports the concept of a statewide independent authorizer but would have to review the specifics of any proposal, said Education Department spokesman Tim Eller.