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Republicans say they have a deal to change Pa.’s Charter School Appeal Board. Here’s what to know about how it works.

Pennsylvania’s Charter School Appeal Board decides cases brought by charters that have been denied by school districts. Members are appointed by Gov. Shapiro — and most of its seats are up for grabs.

Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) applauds prior to Gov. Josh Shapiro's first budget address in March at the state Capitol in Harrisburg.
Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) applauds prior to Gov. Josh Shapiro's first budget address in March at the state Capitol in Harrisburg.Read moreDan Gleiter / AP

As they continue to push for more school choice, Republican leaders say they have an agreement with Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro to make changes to a little-known state board that can allow the expansion of charter schools.

Pennsylvania’s Charter School Appeal Board decides cases brought by charters that have been denied by school districts. The board’s members are appointed by the governor — and most of its seats are up for grabs.

Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland), said that after Shapiro vetoed a proposed school voucher program that had been part of the state budget proposal, Republicans prioritized getting “more charter schools open.”

“Because there are 25,000 children on a waiting list in Philadelphia for charter schools, and the charter board ...they don’t let them through,” Ward said in a recent interview. “So we talked to the governor about that and he agreed that we would be fixing that.” (A spokesperson for Ward said she got her numbers from Philadelphia charter advocates, but some critics question whether that number is exaggerated.)

The comment alarmed some public education advocates. “It’s really surprising to see this announced so publicly, that essentially Gov. Shapiro agreed with Republicans to rig the charter appeals board,” said Susan Spicka, executive director of Education Voters PA.

A spokesperson for Shapiro didn’t comment on Ward’s characterization but said “consideration of potential appointees to the charter appeals board is ongoing.” Here’s what to know about the board and how new members could impact its work:

What is the Charter School Appeal Board?

Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run. In Pennsylvania, anyone seeking to open one has to apply to the school district where it proposes to locate; the district then decides whether to grant the charter.

Districts, which fund charters based on enrollment, also decide whether to renew or close them. The state’s charter law dictates what circumstances can trigger those denials.

If a charter disagrees, it can appeal to the appeals board, which has the power to overturn districts.

Who is on the board?

The board is supposed to have seven members, including the secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

However, it only has five. In June 2021, then-Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf struck a deal with Republicans — who control the Senate and must confirm gubernatorial appointees — to add members to the board, which had been disbanded earlier that year amid a broader dispute between Wolf and Republicans.

But they only agreed on four members, leaving two seats vacant. Appointed were Jennifer Faustman, CEO of Belmont Charter Schools in Philadelphia; Tom Killion, a former Republican state senator from Delaware County; Stacey Marten, a public school teacher in Lancaster County; and Jodi Schwartz, a former Central Bucks school board member.

All but Faustman’s term have since expired, meaning that the composition of the board could shift significantly with new appointees.

What do charter advocates say?

Charter advocates say the board hasn’t been favorable to them.

“When you only have four” members, and “maybe three of the four oppose charter schools, there’s not much likelihood they’re going to approve” new charters,” said Anne Clark, CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools. (After the four appointees, the board’s fifth member is Education Secretary Khalid Mumin.)

Clark said the current composition of the board was “not equitable” and that vacancies should be filled. She said as part of a U.S. Department of Education grant the coalition received to expand charters in Pennsylvania, a consulting group, WestEd, identified the charter appeals board as “among the issues we need to be addressing.”

Since its current members were appointed in 2021, the board has issued decisions related to a dozen charter schools, siding with the charters twice, according to an Inquirer review. (One of those decisions was decided by default, after a school district in Lackawanna County didn’t defend itself against the charter’s appeal.)

In the 10 other cases, the board voted in favor of districts. It affirmed Philadelphia’s decisions to end the charters for ASPIRA’s Olney and Stetson Charter Schools and Universal Daroff Charter School, and to deny the charter for Joan Myers Brown Academy, which String Theory Schools was seeking to open in West Philadelphia.

Three of the 10 decisions for districts were unanimous, while in the others — including the Philadelphia cases — Faustman or Killion voted in favor of the charters. Killion was absent from several votes.

One of the board’s decisions was later overturned by Commonwealth Court, which said it erred in denying a charter seeking to open in the Southeast Delco School District — requiring that the charter provide more detail on planned extracurricular activities and community partnerships than the law requires.

“My client was pleased that the Commonwealth Court recognized that replicating a successful charter school ... was a good thing,” said Brian Leinhauser, a lawyer for the Vision Academy Charter School of Excellence.

Leinhauser, who plans to go to court on behalf of another charter denied by the appeals board that is seeking to open in Norristown, said the appeals process had “become politicized, unfortunately.”

What changes do people want to see?

Others said the board’s denials reflected deficiencies with the charters.

“It’s true the board has been pretty rigorous in evaluating charter applications. It’s also true that many of the recent charter applications have been remarkably weak,” said Susan DeJarnatt, a law professor at Temple University who has researched charters.

In some ways, the board has favored charters, DeJarnatt said. She has argued that the board has wrongly concluded that districts can’t consider financial impact when deciding whether to approve new charters.

DeJarnatt also noted that Wolf didn’t appoint members until the end of his two terms as governor, meaning for most of his eight-year tenure, the board was populated with appointees of former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.

Adding new members to the board might not change much, DeJarnatt said, “unless they appointed people who were so ideological they would approve any charter any time, no matter what.”

Republicans say changes are needed.

“Our impression of that board is that it is very inactive at this point,” Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R., Indiana) said in a recent interview.

The board didn’t have a quorum for two meetings in 2021, the year Wolf appointed new members. But it met six times that year, eight times in 2022, and five times so far this year, with three more meetings scheduled, according to the education department.

Will Simons, a spokesperson for Shapiro, said the governor’s administration “closely evaluates the qualifications of all candidates before making nominations.”

“The governor believes all boards and commissions, including this one, should operate efficiently and at full capacity,” Simons said.

Spicka, of Education Voters PA, said the apparent promise to put members on the board who would support charters undermined its integrity, and threatened to make it “a very highly politically charged body with an agenda to expand charter schools.”

The appeals process “shouldn’t be about ‘do we want more charter schools’ or ‘do we like this charter school?’” Spicka said. “It should be about the actual law.”

Staff writer Gillian McGoldrick contributed to this article.