Their view | Break budget impasse with charter school reform

You wouldn’t pay $10 for an apple or a loaf of bread. So why should you overpay for tax-funded, privately run charter schools?

The urgency of passing strong charter school reform in Pennsylvania has only grown in recent weeks, due to two major news stories:

•  the state budget impasse and

•  revelations that charter schools in Philadelphia alone have racked up nearly $500 million in debt, all of which could ultimately be the responsibility of taxpayers.

I recently issued my third annual report on charter schools, outlining the problems and potential solutions. You can read it at http://is.gd/2015CharterReport.

The good news is that the $160 million or more in potential savings from passing strong charter school reform could help fill the gap that has left Pennsylvania without a budget for more than three months. It would be a sizable step toward closing the structural deficit and restoring school funding. It would also amount to at least six times more than the savings from a Republican bill (H.B. 530) the House passed on party lines in March.

Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed $160 million in savings from reforming cyber charter school payments. We should build on that by making strong reforms to brick-and-mortar charter schools as well.

For example, reforming special education funding that goes to charter schools was left out of a 2014 law that only implemented some recommendations of a bipartisan commission. As noted in an Education Law Center study, 2012-13, Pennsylvania charter schools received more than $350 million in special education revenue from school districts, but spent just $156 million on services for special needs students.

I have introduced a bipartisan bill (H.B. 1328) to reform charter schools. As House Democratic Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, has said: “Every dollar freed up this way is a dollar that can restore education cuts; every dollar freed up this way is a dollar that doesn’t have to come from taxes.”

Some charter schools are high-performing, but we shouldn’t be overpaying, even for those. And we need openness to help make sure we don’t overpay.

I believe that well-run charter schools have nothing to fear from the strong reform and openness that H.B. 1328 would provide. In fact, they would benefit from the contrast with other schools.

Requiring more transparency could have prevented many of the problems spotlighted in my recent annual charter school report and by news stories in recent years. The previous director of the state Office of Open Records called charter schools “a cancer on the otherwise healthy right-to-know law,” and the Open Records Office reported receiving 239 appeals in cases in which charter schools either rejected or failed to answer taxpayer right-to-know requests.

Strong charter school reform would benefit students and taxpayers, and provide a sustainable way to help bridge the state budget impasse. It’s time to pass H.B. 1328.