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New Charter School Report Recommends Reform in PA

Ongoing conversations in the legislature – like the discussion of charter school reform in Pennsylvania – take a long time.

There are a lot of complicated issues to sort through.

Charter school reform became a major topic of conversation in Harrisburg about five years ago, when the state budget cut a line item that helped school districts offset the cost of funding charter schools, causing districts to get “hit pretty hard,” state representative Mike Reese (R – Fayette County) said. Since then, the topic has spawned several pieces of proposed legislation, as well as a recent report from the Pennsylvania Auditor General that has spurred new initiative toward reform.

“As part of our audits of public schools, we kept seeing the same issues over and over again,” Auditor General Eugene DePasquale says, leading him to hold public hearing all over the state with charter schools, advocacy organizations and school districts.

“The hearings showed what we thought would happen, that this is a state-wide issue,” DePasquale said. “We put together the report to address these issues comprehensively.”

The report identifies several common problems in Pennsylvania’s charter schools, including issues of funding, oversight and transparency, while making suggestions to be taken up the legislature.

Department of Education Press Secretary Tim Ellers says that charter schools are a public school alternative to traditional school districts that come in two forms: cyber charter schools, which instruct students through the internet and electronic means and are licensed by the DEP, and brick-and-mortar charter schools, which are physically located within and authorized by a local school district.

There are four charter schools in State College: Wonderland, Nittany Valley, Young Scholars of Central Pennsylvania and Centre Learning Community charter schools.

The Auditor General’s report says that charter schools were authorized in Pennsylvania by a state law in 1997, and now include 163 brick-and-mortar schools plus 16 cyber charter schools. As their numbers have grown, so have their expenses, with the State College Area School District’s charter costs increasing from $1.2 million in 2004 to just over $5million this year, according to SCASD superintendent Bob O’Donnell.

Charter schools are publicly funded through a monthly tuition rate that the home school district of a charter student pays per pupil to the charter, Ellers says. Because special education students have greater needs, school districts pay a greater monthly tuition rate, which Ellers says creates one of the main points of debate in the reform conversation.

The Auditor General’s report found that “the special education process creates tensions and hostility between authorizers and charters,” due in part to a charter schools ability to reclassify a student as special education and receive the increased tuition rate.

SCASD school board member David Hutchinson says that some charter schools “have figured out how to game the system” to receive the special education tuition rate by identifying new special education students who may not have required an Individualized Education Program in their home school districts.

Kara Martin, CEO of Nittany Valley Charter School — which focuses on small class sizes, a nurturing educational environment and parental involvement — says that her school has “a varied amount of disabilities” and that misrepresenting a student as requiring special education is “illegal.” She says that Nittany Valley must preform a psychological evaluation before creating an Individualized Education Plan. Martin also says that the DEP monitors the school’s IEPs and “goes through our files, goes into classrooms and talks to students” every three years.

The AG report recommends allowing the DEP to handle disputes over student classification and creating a system that would divide student disabilities into three tiers, with greater tuition rates associated with students with more severe impairments.

Ellers said that two piece of legislation already address this concern: Senate Bill 1316 and House Bill 2138, both of which propose creating three tiers of special education funding. Martin said she suspects that most of Nittany Valley’s special education students would fall into tier 1 and 2, though she doesn’t know the criteria for each proposed level.

“I’m sure that if it means that we’d receive less funding for those students, we might have to make cuts for what we are able to provide,” Martin says. “Our administrative salaries are lower than surrounding districts, and we’re already running on lower funds. We could be hurt financially, depending on that the funding formula is.”

O’Donnell calls the proposed changes to special education funding a “reasonable effort,” since each special education student has different needs and abilities and places a different demand on the educational system.

“There’s no questions that a student who has a specific learning disability requires a different level of funding from a student who has a learning disability and other social or emotional disturbances,” O’Donnell says. “To give a blanket amount of money per student not regarding need is an unreasonable use of resources.”

Both bills are currently in committee in their respective chambers of the legislature.

Representative Reese, a member of the house education committee, helped draft House Bill 618 last year, which also addresses some charter funding concerns. School districts calculate the amount of tuition they pay to a charter school based on a formula that includes factors like teacher pensions and cafeteria materials, Reese says. Because cyber charters lack these expenses, and because they receive an additional pension reimbursement from the state, HB618 would adjust school districts’ funding formula to save districts this money.

How much school districts might save from this bill varies across the state. HB618 passed the House with bipartisan support and has been referred to the Senate education committee.

The AG report also attempts to address the tension between charter schools and authorizing districts by suggesting ways to improve transparency and oversight. The report recommends requiring an annual verbal report from charters to their authorizing district in a public meeting, giving authorizing districts more tools to address concerns about charters and creating a independent, state-wide charter oversight board.

Martin says Nittany Valley tries to maintain a transparent relationship with the public and authorizing school district through public school board meetings, monthly meetings with the district’s charter school liaison and making their annual DEP reports available to the school district.

Alison Carr-Chellman, a Centre Learning Community charter school board member and Penn State professor of education, says she cannot speak on behalf of the board but believes “heavily in transparency.” She said the CLC reports monthly to the school board and that the school’s financial information and demographics are open information.

Hutchinson says that the SCASD school board has “by and large … a decent relationship with local charters,” but adds they don’t have access to specifics on how each school spends its tuition funds.

Carr-Chellman says she isn’t opposed to additional oversight “with the understanding that it’s not coming from anyone with a stake in the game.” She says giving school districts greater oversight over charter schools could be a conflict of interest because some expanding charter schools represent a financial concern for local districts.

“Because there is this conflict of interest, you have to be very careful how this relationship is structured,” Carr-Chellman says. “Charter schools are schools of choice, which does have complications, but we have to recognize that innovation isn’t going to fall into all the nice, neat categories.”

O’Donnell and Martin both express interest in the idea of a statewide oversight board, but were unable to comment on how it might affect the school district or charter schools, though O’Donnell expressed his support for local control as the most agile and wise use of resources.

“If a community desire’s choice, then the community should be the one making that choice and understand that the commitment of their resources requires,” O’Donnell says. “Public education has a cost, and the community pays for it.”

Carr-Chellman says that some policymakers, when approaching the issue of charter school reform, have an image of charter schools as moneymaking entities fueled by corporate interest and interested in unfettered growth. While she says this is true for some cyber charter schools, it doesn’t account for schools like the CLC which she describes as “a local, small school not interested in growth, but interested in kids, including one that need special attention.”

Auditor General DePasquale says that, despite the legislature’s standing interest in the issue, no bills on charter reform have made it to the governor yet, though his recommendations have been met by bipartisan support.

Ellers says that, considering the many factors involved in this conversation, it’s important to keep the conversation grounded in the freedom of Pennsylvanians to chose the education they feel is best for their children.

“No one is being forced, and that needs to remain a focus,” Ellers says. “We’ve got to keep in perspective that these parents are making these decisions in the best interest of their children, and that’s an important part of the story.”

This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.

Michael Martin Garrett is a freelance reporter who frequently writes for the Centre County Gazette
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