Pennsylvania charter, public schools not always bound to same rules

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Charter schools are public schools, funded with taxpayer dollars, but charter and regular public schools don't have to follow all of the same rules.

The state Charter School Law provides some exemptions, from length of the school year to bidding requirements for supplies.

The newest exemption is the newly approved state requirement for public schools -- except for charter schools -- to consider student performance as half of the measurement for evaluating teachers beginning in 2013-14.

Ira Weiss, solicitor for Pittsburgh Public Schools, believes the current exemptions are so significant that it's like having two basketball teams, one with eight players and the other with 11.

"Everybody likes to talk about competition. Competition really means playing by the same rules," Mr. Weiss said.

Bob Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said the charter school law was designed to eliminate some administrative burdens while at the same time providing accountability for performance.

He said that has worked well in some cases but not all.

He said accountability could be tightened up if the state, rather than individual school districts, authorized and oversaw all charter schools. That's among the proposals that have been introduced in legislation seeking to change state law.

Various charter school proposals -- such as exclusion of charter school vendors from the state Right to Know Law, a commission to study funding and financial report requirements -- were debated up until the last minute when the state budget was passed in June and may surface again for debate next month.

Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education, said the governor wants to see "comprehensive charter school reform, which includes the creation of a committee to study the funding of brick-and-mortar and cyber charter schools, as well as the creation of a statewide authorizer."

Ron Cowell, president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center, said the state Department of Education, through three administrations, hasn't evaluated the impact of the exemptions provided to charter schools so that all schools could learn.

"Charters were going to be these laboratories to try something different," he said.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a pro-charter advocacy group, rated states' charter school laws against a model law, giving Pennsylvania good marks in some areas -- such as allowing a variety of charter schools -- but stated, "Pennsylvania's law includes none of the elements of the model law's authorizer and overall program accountability system."

It also gave Pennsylvania low marks for equitable access to operational and capital funding.

How money matters

In Mr. Fayfich's view, the playing field is uneven because of the way charter schools are funded.

Charter schools are open to students throughout the state at no cost to the students, but their home districts pay a fee -- a portion of per-pupil spending -- set by the state. Some charter schools leaders believe it should be more or all of the per-pupil amount.

In 2011-12, Pittsburgh Public Schools, for example, had to pay charter schools $13,047 for each regular student and $28,555 for each special-education student who resided in Pittsburgh.

In a report on charter school funding, state Auditor General Jack Wagner argued that funding should be based more on costs. He said cyber charter schools in particular receive too much money for what it costs to operate them.

Bricks-and-mortar charter schools are chartered by school districts, which are responsible for oversight; cyber charter schools are chartered by the state.

Mr. Wagner said there is more state oversight over regular school districts than charter schools.

"There is insufficient oversight of charter schools in Pennsylvania," he said.

Mr. Wagner audits all 500 school districts every three years, but, with budget cutbacks, said he does not have adequate resources to audit all of the state's growing number of charter schools, now exceeding 165.

He estimated about one-third have had individual audits, although he has done two reports on overall issues around charter schools.

To be sure, charter schools and regular public schools are bound by many of the same laws, including nondiscrimination rules, required independent financial audits and open meetings under the Sunshine Act.

But there also are differences, beginning with their governance systems.

Regular public school districts have publicly elected boards with nine members.

Charter schools have their own school boards that can be selected internally and vary in the number of members. Occasionally, some of their bylaws call for at least some members to be elected from within the school community.

Both charter schools and regular public schools are required to bid construction projects publicly. However, construction of many charter school facilities is done through outside foundations or other groups that have no such requirements. The facilities are then often leased.

The state, however, does not provide reimbursement for construction, as it does for school districts, although it does provide a partial lease reimbursement.

Regular schools also are required to take competitive bids for supplies, but charter schools are not.

Some charter schools -- particularly cyber charter schools -- hire management companies that perform a host of services. Except for transportation and food services, regular public schools typically do not contract out management services.

Often, the details of the charter school management contracts -- such as the cost of specific services -- are not made available to the public by the schools.

Charter schools do not have to file the same state annual financial reports as regular public schools, but they do have to file an annual report with the state and file audited financial statements. Some also file an IRS 990 form.

Charter schools have no restrictions on the size of their unrestricted fund balances, while school districts must have fund balances between 8 and 12 percent, depending on their budget size.

One legislative proposal calls for holding charter schools to the same standard, with any excess being sent back to the home school districts.

Charters are rarely union

Charter schools also have more leeway in staffing schools. While all teachers must be certified in regular schools, only 75 percent must be certified in charter schools although all teachers in many charter schools are certified.

Charter school employees have a right to unionize, but few have done so. In most cases, charter school employees are at-will employees with fewer job protections than the union teachers in regular public schools have.

Ted Kirsch, president of the American Federation of Teachers-Pennsylvania, said some charter schools have fired teachers who were identified as being union supporters.

"Of course, it's never for union activity. You can't prove it," he said.

Without a union, teachers cannot legally strike.

Regular public schools must offer 900 hours of instruction for elementary grades or 990 hours for secondary grades plus 180 days. Charter schools can offer either the hours or the days.

Regular public schools must accept all students within their districts.

Charter schools are open to students from throughout the state. The students -- except for those of school organizers and siblings of enrolled students -- are selected by lottery.

Charter schools cannot enforce truancy laws. Their truant students must be handled by the students' school districts, but Mr. Weiss said districts often aren't told about truant students.

Charter schools are subject to annual reviews by the district or the state that chartered them. They also must seek renewals every five years and face the risk of having their charter revoked if they don't perform well.

While school districts typically cover all grades, charter schools often serve a limited number of grades.

For some grant programs, charter schools are not considered local education agencies and, unlike school districts, are not eligible to seek certain grants.

Regular public school boards levy taxes to help pay the bills.

Charter schools cannot control the amount of money they get from school districts.

Both charter schools and regular schools sometimes receive financial contributions from foundations and others.

education

Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.


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