The state auditor general is calling for charter school reform, including that of PA Cyber Charter School, which educates more than 75 students from Centre County.
It comes on the heels of a longtime audit led by Auditor General Eugene DePasquale that he said showed “how poorly” charter school law is protecting students and taxpayers.
The goal for reform, DePasquale said, is to ensure education dollars help students learn, instead of help individuals profit.
We need to revisit Pennsylvania’s charter school experience, and act now — not later — to overhaul the charter school law and do a very thorough tune-up on all aspects of charter school oversight and regulation.
Eugene DePasquale, state auditor general
“The bottom line is this: Nearly 20 years have passed since charter schools were authorized to be established,” DePasquale said in a prepared statement. “We need to revisit Pennsylvania’s charter school experience, and act now — not later — to overhaul the charter school law and do a very thorough tune-up on all aspects of charter school oversight and regulation.”
A report released by the state Thursday said auditors found leaders of some charter schools “had intermingled relationships that put individual self-interests above student needs while controlling hundreds of millions of taxpayer education funds from nearly every district in the state.”
“The problems I continue to point out with the charter school law should not be taken as an indictment of charter schools and performing arts in general,” DePasquale said. “We have some excellent charter schools and performing arts centers in Pennsylvania providing outstanding educational opportunities for students. Most of the problems we see in our audits can be traced directly back to gray areas in the 20-year-old charter school law, not issues caused by the charter schools themselves.”
Administrators at local public schools are hoping charter schools can be held to a higher standard because they’re publicly funded institutions.
“Charter schools are not playing by the same rules and are governed by unelected bodies although they utilize public funding,” Philipsburg-Osceola Area School District Superintendent Gregg Paladina said. “They must be held to a higher standard if they are responsible for the education of students.”
About 150 students in the region are enrolled in PA Cyber, according to figures provided by the state.
Like other public schools that serve Centre County residents, State College Area is a district that’s invested in improving education and enhancing communication with the community on the local public education system.
SCASD hopes to better inform community about public education system that includes school districts and charter schools
Superintendent Bob O’Donnell said school administration and the board will hold a “state of SCASD finances” later this year and will focus on the charter school impact.
As a district, they’re paying about $250,000 this school year toward the online charter school. Last school year, SCASD funded $6.2 million from its district budget to local charter schools for 430 students, according to a report from the district.
Local public school districts invest millions in charter schools
But State College Area also offers its own virtual program.
“Our wish is to make sure that students whose families desire an online experience have the opportunity to meet with our highly-trained teachers who utilize our quality curriculum,” O’Donnell said. “These state-mandated charter school payments constrain our decisions for opportunities within our schools and make it difficult to slow local tax growth.”
The CDT was unable to reach local charter school leadership by deadline.
Charter school law reform, as presented by DePasquale, includes improvement in accountability, effectiveness and transparency of charter schools, by creating an independent statewide charter school oversight board.
“In the case of PA Cyber Charter School, publicly elected school boards from nearly every school district in the state are sending state and local tax dollars to the cyber school with zero input and accountability,” he said.
91-page audit done on PA Cyber
The 91-page audit report on the Beaver County-based cyber school showed concerns in seven categories, including a problem in curriculum and management; a board that fails to govern; unmonitored attendance; failure to collect tech equipment from former students; financially detrimental arrangements with performing arts centers; failure to maintain sufficient documentation to support teacher certifications; and high advertising costs.
The audit spans from May 2011 through March 2016.
Local PA Cyber Charter School enrollment
As of Oct. 1, 2014:
▪ Bald Eagle Area: 5
▪ Bellefonte Area: 34
▪ Keystone Central: 45
▪ Penns Valley Area: 23
▪ Philipsburg-Osceola Area: 17
▪ State College Area: 15
▪ Tyrone Area: 15