HARRISBURG – A bill providing substantial reforms to the Commonwealth’s charter school law took a major step forward Wednesday when the Senate Education Committee voted 9-2 to send it to the Senate Appropriations Committee for consideration.
The legislation, authored by Sen. Lloyd K. Smucker (R-13), provides a number of noteworthy accountability measures to ensure charter schools operate efficiently and effectively.
Smucker, who serves as vice-chair of the Senate Education Committee, said his legislation represents a “comprehensive overhaul of the current charter school law” and is based on years of practical experience showing what works and what needs to be fixed.
“Charter schools are a good option, but we need to ensure they are quality schools that continue to provide a quality education for the students attending them,” Smucker said. “Moving this bill forward will serve the best interests of students, taxpayers, school districts and charter schools.”
Among many changes, Senate Bill 1085 requires charter schools to comply with Pennsylvania’s open meetings law, its open records law and its ethics act. Charter schools must provide more detailed reporting and disclosure, as well as undergo an annual independent audit. The bill also calls for the state Department of Education to develop realistic and reliable methods of evaluating how well charter schools meet student needs.
The measure provides what Smucker calls a “new concept” in establishing charter schools in the Commonwealth; namely the implementation of a “university authorizer” system that would allow local school boards as well as governing boards of Pennsylvania universities to sign charter school applications and legally authorize them.
An amendment to the bill—which also was approved by the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday—would establish a Charter School Funding Advisory Commission whose sole purpose would be to examine the financing of charter school entities in the public education system. The newly formed commission would have until August of 2014 to publish its findings.
“I think we should get to a funding formula based on actual costs, and that will be the focus of the advisory commission,” Smucker said.
Smucker’s proposal reduces the amount school districts are required to pay to cyber charter schools and eliminates a long-standing complaint made by school districts every year: the so-called “pension double dip.”
“Under existing law, school districts are reimbursing charters for all of their pension costs,” Smucker said. “Meanwhile, the state reimburses charter schools for a portion of those costs, as well. This measure would remove the Commonwealth’s portion of those reimbursements altogether.”
Unassigned fund balances will be limited, as is already the case for school districts, he said, and excess funds will be returned to the sending school districts.
To help prospective charters obtain financing, the term for initial approval of a charter school is extended to five years, and to ten years for an extension.
Additionally, the application process is streamlined under SB 1085. Having a standard charter school application helps both school districts and charter schools. School boards no longer have to deal with incomplete submissions, and expectations will be clearer for charter school applicants.
“This legislation is critical to the future of both charter schools and school districts in Pennsylvania,” Smucker said following the committee’s vote. “Years ago, the Commonwealth’s charter school law served as a model for other states. The time has come to implement reforms based on what we have learned.”
Follow Senator Lloyd Smucker on Twitter @SenatorSmucker