Setting the Record Straight: Why House Bill 530 is NOT reasonable charter school reform

It’s no secret that the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and its 4,500 statewide members are opposed to House Bill 530, legislation purporting to be charter school “reform” that actually does little to provide real change in the way charter schools are operated, funded or held accountable. Instead, it enables the expansion of charter schools with less accountability and oversight, and actually dilutes existing powers of oversight by local school boards while costing them millions of dollars.

It’s been suggested that PSBA has made inaccurate and misleading claims about House Bill 530. PSBA would like to set the record straight. Make no mistake – school boards are very serious about charter school accountability. House Bill 530 does not strengthen accountability and does not contain significant, reasonable reform or relief from increasing charter school costs.

Here’s why:

House Bill 530 creates a new charter school performance matrix that actually reduces school boards’ ability to hold charters accountable for poor performance. In doing so, it also effectively establishes a separate accountability system to evaluate the academic performance of charter schools from all other public school entities.

House Bill 530 requires the creation of a performance matrix to be developed by the non-elected State Board of Education in conjunction with a stacked advisory committee that would include representatives of charter schools, regional charter schools and cyber charter schools.

Currently, charters may be revoked or nonrenewed for material violations of the legally binding charter agreement. Other reasons for revocation include failure to meet requirements for student performance, failure to meet generally accepted standards of fiscal management or audit requirements, and violations of the Charter School Law or any law that Charter Schools are subject to. However, House Bill 530 makes the performance matrix a “primary factor” in evaluating renewal of a charter. While student performance is a crucial measure of a charter school’s success, financial mismanagement and compliance with laws, regulations and material provisions of its charter must not be devalued. Presently, under case law, if a charter school does not meet the measurable academic benchmarks included in its own charter, the charter may be revoked when sending school districts are performing better. House Bill 530 eliminates the ability to compare charter schools and their sending school districts, and undermines the original intent of the Charter School Law to create schools that provide something above and beyond that provided by traditional public schools.

House Bill 530 uses the performance matrix to create expanded charter renewal terms that further remove authorizer oversight.

House Bill 530 extends the initial charter period from three to five years and the renewal term from five to 10 years, so long as the charter school’s performance meets the performance matrix benchmarks, and replaces any performance criteria in the existing charter with that matrix. A charter school that does not meet the benchmark can still receive a five-year renewal. Under current law, school districts can close a charter for poor academic performance and other reasons at any time during the term of the charter. House Bill 530 includes a provision that seems to state that a charter which has earned a 10-year renewal will now have five years without local board oversight and that it will only be subject to further review in the sixth year of the 10-year renewal period. If this is not the intent of this provision, what does it mean? It also states that a charter school must be reviewed during the sixth through 10th years of a 10-year renewal if it has failed for two consecutive years. Is this language intended to prevent reviews for poor academic performance of charter schools which fail one year, meet the benchmark the next year, then fail again? It is incorrect to say with certainty that under House Bill 530 charters can be revoked at any time. The language in the bill is unclear and appears to further remove authorizer oversight by eliminating the ability of school districts to review renewed charters annually. If a charter school meets the benchmark, must it be renewed in 10-year increments? If so, is it correct that for the first five years of such 10-year renewal, the charter then gets a free pass? Further, it appears that the authorizing district cannot revoke a charter which has been renewed for ten years until five years after the renewal plus two years of failing, for a total wait time of seven years. If so, this is a significant departure from the current right for districts to review charters annually.

House Bill 530 allows unchecked expansion of charter schools at taxpayer expense and creates an unfair and unbalanced Charter School Appeal Board.

Under House Bill 530, a charter school can decide to open schools at more than one location and/or add more grade levels without permission from the authorizing entity. The school is not required to amend its charter, or provide any explanation or evidence that the expansion is necessary, or that the charter school can adequately provide a quality education, staff and resources for its students. As a result, school districts and taxpayers will have to foot the bill for increased tuition costs without any say in the matter.

The bill also authorizes the state Charter School Appeal Board (CAB) to approve charter amendments during the term of an existing charter over the objections of the chartering school board. Such amendments can remove or change enrollment caps, change the focus of the school’s programs, and otherwise result in the operation at public expense of a school very different from what was originally approved by an elected school board.

Making matters worse are provisions to expand the current six-member Charter School Appeal Board (CAB) to nine members to now include an administrator of a charter school, a trustee of a charter school entity and it changes the current provision for a parent member to require that his/her child is enrolled at a charter school entity. One new member would be a public school principal not working for a charter school. However, this means that three members of the CAB must be affiliated with a charter school, two members of the CAB (with the addition of a principal) must be affiliated with a school district and one member of the CAB, a teacher, could be affiliated with either a charter school or a school district. These changes provide an opportunity for charter school proponents to control the CAB.

House Bill 530 does nothing to help control the spiraling costs of charter schools on school district budgets.

House Bill 530 ensures that the flow of tax dollars from public coffers to charter schools continues unimpeded despite the objections of an elected school board based on unresolved disputes about the accuracy of charter school tuition bills or enrollment data. It does nothing to address that fact that charter tuition payments continue to wreak havoc on local school district budgets. Since 2007-08, tuition payments from school districts to charter schools have increased 139.3%.

Further, House Bill 530 does nothing to address the fact that charters continue to be overpaid for special education costs. In 2014-15, school districts overpaid charter schools more than $101.7 million more than the expenditures actually reported by charters. It does not implement the special education charter funding plan that was recommended by the bipartisan special education funding commission.

Under the bill school districts can no longer negotiate with charter schools for discounts on tuition rates. Charters may not provide discounts to a school district or waive payments unless the school district has been identified for financial recovery. This would prohibit other school districts from negotiating charter tuition rates similar to that done by Chester-Upland School District.

House Bill 530 does not include any members of local school boards on a statewide funding advisory commission that would be created to recommend changes to the current system of funding charter schools, even though school boards are charter school authorizers and responsible for the budget and taxing decisions in their districts.

Charter schools are not required to participate in the state-developed evaluation system for teacher and principals required for school districts.

This statement is not misleading; it’s a fact. House Bill 530 sets a double standard for teacher evaluation that is less rigorous than that of traditional public schools. The bill allows charters to create their own systems for teacher evaluation (there is no requirement for evaluation of principals) that is not even subject to approval by the Department of Education.

House Bill 530 is not a balanced step toward reform. It simply perpetuates and expands the system of privatized public schools.

Charter schools are not free, although they like to say so in their advertisements. They are paid for with taxpayer dollars, and they divert money away from traditional public schools. They receive public money to operate, but are not required to be fully accountable or transparent in what they do with the taxpayers’ money. The financial responsibility for charter schools is not aligned with the authorizer.

Charter schools are profit-minded businesses, and they spend millions of dollars each year to advertise, and recruit students. They are nonprofit organizations run by for-profit management companies that are in the education business to make money. They are governed by non-elected boards that are not accountable in any way to taxpayers. In their truest sense, charter schools are privatized public schools that will continue to exist as long as they are making a profit.

School choice in and of itself does not guarantee quality. There is no magic certainty for academic excellence by any charter school simply because it exists. This is particularly true for cyber charter schools, which have been shown to substantially underperform traditional public schools. And the “choice” is nearly always in the hands of the charter school, not the parents.