State auditor general suggests statewide oversight board for charter schools

Officials from traditional public schools and charter schools commended state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale's special report on charter schools that recommends a statewide charter school oversight board, the reinstatement of tuition reimbursements to districts and a simpler appeals process.

"I think it's a very fair and reasonable report. They are recommendations that make sense after everything that he has heard," said Linda Hippert, executive director of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit.

Robert Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said the report contains "workable solutions."

"I think the auditor general did a very good job listening to the testimony provided and it fairly reflects what educators across the state were saying," Mr. Fayfich said.

The report, released Monday, was created with testimony that Mr. DePasquale heard during public meetings in February and March in Allegheny, Bucks, Cambria, Northampton and Philadelphia counties.

The report said the statewide oversight board would address charter-related issues and enforce statutory provisions, regulations and guidelines in lease reimbursement, enrollment, ethics, Right-to-Know requests and charter reauthorization and revocation.

The board also would train school districts to be effective authorizers of charter schools, implement a new charter appeals process and serve as a repository of best practices for charter schools and school districts.

According to the state Department of Education, in the 2012-13 school year, 119,165 students were enrolled in charter schools, with 84,391 in brick-and-mortar schools and 34,774 in cyber charter schools. Total statewide enrollment in public school that year was 1.75 million students.

Tim Eller, a spokesman for the education department, said the department is reviewing Mr. DePasquale's report.

The report did not address overall charter funding reform because Mr. DePasquale said that was a topic for the state Legislature. But it did make recommendations on some financial issues, including the reinstatement of state reimbursement to districts for part of the tuition paid to charter schools and a tiered special education funding formula that provides funding based on the severity of a student's disability.

The report also recommends that the state pay the tuition for students in cyber charter schools since the state authorizes those charters and local districts have no control over them.

"I completely agree with those recommendations," said Ira Weiss, solicitor for the Pittsburgh Public Schools. "We would hope that the Legislature and the administration take seriously the auditor general's suggestions here."

West Mifflin Area superintendent Dan Castagna said he favored the tiered system for special education reimbursement. "That would mean it would increase from the regular tuition based upon the disability," he said.

Mr. Fayfich said his organization supports the statewide consistency in application forms for charter schools, tiered special education funding, fund balance limits and access to financial information proposed in Mr. DePasquale's recommendations.

State Rep. James Roebuck, D-Philadelphia, Democratic chairman of the House Education Committee and sponsor of legislation on charter reform, said he supported the recommendations in the auditor general's report. In particular, he pointed to the recommendation that the state resurrect the charter tuition reimbursement to school districts, which was cut by Gov. Tom Corbett and the Legislature in 2011.

"The auditor general is right to say that many of the conflicts between traditional and charter public schools stem from the loss of that vital funding," Mr. Roebuck said in a news release.

Mr. Roebuck said he also agreed that the state should fund cyber charter schools since it authorizes them.

In his report, Mr. DePasquale also said he would like to see charter schools provide an annual report to the authorizing school district at a public meeting and require charter schools to have the same teacher and principal evaluations as school districts.

The recommendations also call for more transparency in charter operations, including allowing noncompliance with the Right-to-Know law to be a factor in charter renewal decisions and the creation of a website that would list expenditures for charter and public schools, such as vendor contracts, superintendent buyouts, and lease and transportation costs.

In the McKeesport Area School District, where charter school tuition has risen to $4.9 million of the approximately $62 million budget, business manager David Seropian said, "Any changes that positively help school districts and address charter schools draining local tax dollars would be appreciated."

Mr. DePasquale and others said when the original charter school legislation was passed in 1997, legislators did not envision the charter schools of today and the bill needs to be rewritten to be more fair to traditional public schools and charter schools. He said one of the original missions of the legislation was to allow charter schools to try new and experimental learning methods and to share their successes with other schools. But, he said, little, if none, of that communication has taken place between the educational sectors.

Mary Niederberger: or 412-263-1590. First Published May 12, 2014 11:50 AM

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