PSBA opposes House Bill 1685 (Rep. Topper, R-Bedford), which allows significant unchecked charter school expansion with no public oversight and no consideration given to the quality of the charter school’s educational programs. It provides no real reform and only exacerbates the flaws and overpayments to charter schools. Among the key concerns:

Charters can expand locations without authorizer approval or proof of academic quality. Even though the initial application to open a charter school requires information on building location and is subject to authorizer approval, House Bill 1685 allows charter schools to change the location of the charter school, expand existing facilities, and add multiple new locations all without seeking approval from their authorizer or providing evidence that they are delivering a quality educational program.

Adding or expanding buildings could also occur without any regard to the charter school’s ability to meet the educational needs of additional students, finance a new building, or even fill the open seats that such a facility expansion would create.

Charters can operate at more than one location within the authorizing district without approval of that district. Given the significant logistical (such as transportation) and financial implications that this could have for school districts, this should not be a decision that can be made unilaterally by a charter school. Expansion to multiple locations should only be permitted with authorizer approval and consideration of the charter school’s performance and financial status.

Big loopholes allow charters to expand enrollments with no oversight. The bill gives blanket authority to brick-and-mortar charter schools to offer online education with no limitations or oversight on enrollment of students across the state, in a similar manner as cyber charter schools.

In addition, charter schools can continue to enroll students from school districts outside of the district which authorized them if space is available. However, because the bill also allows charter schools to open multiple locations without any oversight or approval, they would be able to strategically open new locations in areas bordering neighboring school districts. This means they can draw more students from those school districts which have no authorization or oversight authority over the charter school.

The charter amendment process is vague and overly broad. First, House Bill 1685 only requires authorizer approval for “material changes” to the written charter but gives no guidance on what a “material change” might include. This will only lead to litigation and further conflict between authorizers and charter schools.

Second, the bill allows emergency amendments to take effect immediately without prior approval, but what constitutes an emergency under the bill is very broad. For example, an emergency would include any situation in which the charter school was unable to acquire a service or product.

House Bill 1685 also allows charter schools to make significant changes without going through the amendment process. Specifically, a charter school can change its name and its educational programs, curriculum, and school design as long as such changes do not fundamentally change the charter school’s “approved educational approach” — though it is unclear what this means — all without going through the amendment process.

No meaningful, guaranteed funding relief

House Bill 1685 does mention charter school funding but offers no real, meaningful change. Instead of fixing the fundamental flaws in the way charter schools are funded and providing relief to taxpayers, it relies on a future “pledge” that the General Assembly “may” add an appropriation in the state budget every year to help defray up to 30% of the charter school costs incurred by school districts.

If such an appropriation had been included in the state budget adopted this past June, state taxpayers would be paying as much as an additional $900 million dollars. School officials may recall that the General Assembly used to provide school districts with a charter school reimbursement (never reaching 30%) until the 2011-12 budget. But, with bleak state revenue forecasts for the next several years due to the pandemic, it’s hard to imagine the state would provide this funding.

Any omnibus charter reform proposal which does not address the skewed funding formulas for charter schools misses the mark. It fails to provide relief to taxpayers who are footing the bill through property taxes, and neglects to make reforms that locally elected and appointed public school leaders from around the state have been pleading for.

Other areas of concern

The bill contains many other areas of concern, including but not limited to the following: expanded charter terms, expanded appeals to the Charter Appeal Board, granting charter schools the right of first refusal for “unused” school district buildings, reduced standards for multiple charter school organizations, reduced standards for showing community support in application appeals, limiting the information that may be requested by an authorizer as part of the charter application process, a shift to all decisions regarding charter applications, amendments, and renewals being considered deemed approved rather than requiring appeals, and more.