HARRISBURG – A bill to reform how charter schools in Pennsylvania operate and are established passed the Senate Appropriations Committee Tuesday evening, clearing the way for consideration by the full Senate.
Senator Lloyd K. Smucker (R-13) said an amendment he introduced to Senate Bill 1085 would provide school districts with nearly $63 million in savings and new capital next year and establish a Charter School Funding Advisory Commission to evaluate the funding formula for charter schools going forward.
“This amendment provides assurances to school districts, charter schools, parents and taxpayers that we are committed to seeing Pennsylvania students receive a top-notch education regardless of the venue,” Smucker said. “By making every dollar count and implementing reforms across the board, I believe this legislative package puts to its best possible use the practical experience we have with charter schools over the last decade and a half.”
Smucker’s bill includes many new reforms, such as requiring charter schools to comply with the open meetings law, the open records law and the ethics act. It requires charter schools to undergo an annual independent audit and provide more detailed reporting and disclosure. It also streamlines the application process for charter schools and calls on the Department of Education to develop new methods for evaluating charter school success.
The amendment to the bill eliminates a long-standing complaint made by school districts across Pennsylvania: the so-called “pension double dip.”
Under existing law, school districts are reimbursing charters for their pension costs, even as the Commonwealth reimburses them for a portion of their costs, as well. This means a charter school could receive reimbursements in excess of actual pension costs.
“The amendment eliminates the Commonwealth’s contribution and reallocates a portion of the resulting savings directly to school districts,” Smucker said. “This would alleviate financial pressure on school districts and, by extension, taxpayers.”
A new “university authorizer” component of the bill would allow local school boards as well as governing boards of Pennsylvania universities to sign charter school applications and legally authorize them. Thirteen other states have implemented the “university authorizer” into their charter school systems with uniformly positive results.
“Universities already have the resources to provide the kind of oversight necessary to hold charter schools to a high standard of accountability,” he said. “My legislation simply gives them ability to put those resources to use.”
Meanwhile, the 17-member Charter School Funding Commission established by the bill will result in recommendations next year on ways to improve the overall funding formula for charter schools.
“It is time we base our funding formula on actual costs,” Smucker said. “The commission will help us determine those costs and provide a fuller picture for moving forward.”
The legislation likely will undergo additional changes as it moves toward final passage, but Smucker is optimistic about its prospects.
“The future success of our Commonwealth depends on the quality of our education system,” he said. “This bill addresses the key concerns raised by everyone with a stake in how that system works.”
Follow Senator Lloyd Smucker on Twitter @SenatorSmucker