Pennsylvania’s charter schools may be required to follow certain accounting and audit standards, comply with state ethics requirements, and post enrollment policies on their websites under new rules opposed by charter advocates and Republican lawmakers.
The rules, passed by the state’s Independent Regulatory Review Commission on Monday in a 3-2 vote, were proposed by Gov. Tom Wolf as part of a broader effort to overhaul how charters are regulated and funded — a perennially contentious issue in the education world. Charters, which educate 170,000 students across Pennsylvania, including one-third of all Philadelphia public school students, are paid by school districts based on enrollment.
That dynamic sets up a competition for dollars with traditional public schools, which often contend that charters are depleting their budgets while lacking adequate accountability, and that cyber charters in particular — which are paid at the same rate as brick-and-mortar charters — are overfunded. Charters, meanwhile, say they’re providing an option desired by families and accuse school districts of unfairly limiting their growth.
The new regulations mostly don’t address the funding battle, which would require a change to state law. But while Wolf hasn’t been able to get the Republican-controlled legislature to agree to his charter reform package, the Democratic governor — whose term ends in January — succeeded on Monday in getting some changes through the regulatory commission.
Among them: a standardized application process specifying what type of information new charter applicants should provide to school districts, which are charged with deciding whether to approve brick-and-mortar charters. (The state’s 14 cyber charters are authorized by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.)
The rules also specify that the charters must follow the same accounting and audit practices as school districts and that information about charters’ random selection policies must be posted on their websites. And they clarify that charter school trustees are subject to the state Public Official and Employee Ethics Act.
They also require that charters provide the same health-care plans to their employees as school districts offer, and add parameters for the process to resolve disputes over how much districts pay charters per student.
The regulations are “the first of hopefully many things that will be done to change the law,” said George Bedwick, the commission’s chairman, noting that “there has been inertia, clearly” to update the state’s now 25-year-old charter school law.
The rules could take effect as soon as the end of May, said Jean Morrow, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools. However, Morrow said the coalition hopes Wolf will hold back on implementing the regulations and instead work with lawmakers on a compromise deal. The Republican leaders of the House and Senate Education Committees had opposed the rules.
While the Wolf administration said the changes were tied to the state’s Charter School Law, charter advocates said the rules went beyond what the law prescribed and were too onerous, particularly for smaller schools that would be harder pressed to deal with more administrative burdens. They also contended the new regulations would stifle future charters from opening.
“It costs a lot to apply for a charter school,” said Larry Jones, CEO of the Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School in Southwest Philadelphia and member of the African American Charter School Coalition, a group of Philadelphia charter leaders who say Black-led charters have been disproportionately rejected or targeted for closure. Jones warned of “overregulating charters to the point” where only larger organizations can afford to run schools.
But larger organizations also opposed the rules: Mastery Schools, Philadelphia’s largest charter network, said in written comments submitted to the commission that the regulations “threaten the very existence of the public charter schools that have been transformative to our children’s lives.”
State officials said charters were currently less regulated than traditional public schools. Proponents of the new rules also said the application requirements wouldn’t apply to existing charters, and called it important to clarify standards for schools that draw $3 billion in public funding annually.
It can take school districts “hundreds” of hours to review applications to open a new charter school, and currently, applicants don’t necessarily provide the detail necessary to assess a future school’s prospects, said Christopher Dormer, superintendent of the Norristown Area School District.
The new rules, he said, are “important first steps.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Larry Jones’ role with the African American Charter School Coalition.