Pa. bill proposes review of charter school funding

House plan calls for commission to study regulations

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HARRISBURG -- The Pennsylvania House on Wednesday sent the Senate a package of revisions to charter school regulations, including a temporary change in payments to cyber charter schools while a commission examines charter funding.

The funding structure for cyber charter schools is frequently criticized for delivering disproportionate reimbursement for pension costs and for including expenses, such as cafeteria costs, that do not apply to online learning.

The House proposal, which passed 133-62, would allow school districts for the next two school years to deduct the full cost of their pension contributions and food service when calculating their per-pupil expenses for the purpose of tuition to cyber charter schools. The change would not apply to tuition payments to charter schools that students attend in person.

In the meantime, the bill would establish a statewide commission -- made up primarily of legislators and representatives of charter schools and school districts -- to issue recommendations for funding charter schools. The recommendations are expected by March 30, 2014.

The proposal includes numerous other changes to charter school law. It would allow charter schools to be paid directly from the state, rather than receiving payments from school districts. And it includes several ethics and accountability measures, such as giving school districts and the Department of Education access to financial reports and audits.

Pittsburgh has nine charter schools, although one, Career Connections Charter High School in Lawrenceville, could be forced to close after a state appeal board on Tuesday upheld the city school board's decision not to renew its charter. The decision can be appealed through the courts.

The Senate in 2011 passed a comprehensive set of changes to charter school law. In August, Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster, introduced legislation modeled on that bill.

"It would certainly be fair to say the Senate is very interested in pursuing strong charter school reforms and would like to see legislation sent to the governor this fall," said Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware.

Passage of the House bill followed a lengthy debate over two days. The divide in the vote did not fall along party lines.

Rep. Dan Truitt, R-Chester, said lawmakers should wait for the recommendations of the funding commission before making changes to cyber school payments.

"If you went to the shooting range, you wouldn't hear the instructor say: Ready, fire, aim," he said. "Well that's exactly what we're doing here."

Rep. Mike Carroll, D-Luzerne, said the bill should be accepted as a solution to part of the problem with funding for charter schools.

The state associations of school business officials and school administrators supported the bill, while the group Pennsylvania Families for Public Cyber Schools said the changes would be devastating for their students.

"Once again our children are being treated like second-class students because they attend a public cyber school," president Monica Allison said in a statement. "We have always supported the accountability measures in this bill, but the insistence of cutting the funding of our schools, without any research or facts, does nothing but harm our children."

She said the measures in the bill would cut funding for cyber schools by up to 15 percent.

The ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee, Rep. James Roebuck of Philadelphia, has said the bill does not include enough taxpayer savings or financial reforms. He argues the change in pension funding should be extended to brick-and-mortar charter schools, not just cyber charter schools, and that charter schools should be banned from using public money for advertising.

education - electionspa - state

Karen Langley: klangley@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-2141.


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