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Gov. Tom Wolf pledges to change charter-school policy, says more accountability needed

Wolf said "many charter schools are underperforming, and we're not doing enough to hold them accountable." How the governor plans to work with legislative leaders is unclear.

Gov. Tom Wolf is shown above at a news conference in July, where he announced more money for lead-paint abatement in Philadelphia Schools. On Tuesday, he discussed a plan for changes to state charter school regulations and law.
Gov. Tom Wolf is shown above at a news conference in July, where he announced more money for lead-paint abatement in Philadelphia Schools. On Tuesday, he discussed a plan for changes to state charter school regulations and law.Read more / File Photograph

Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday pledged to overhaul Pennsylvania’s charter-school policy to increase accountability for the schools, which have long been a source of controversy.

At a news conference at a school in Allentown, Wolf said he would direct the state Department of Education to change regulations for charters, including tightening ethics standards, charging fees for services provided by the state, and allowing school districts to limit enrollment at charters that don’t provide a “high-quality” education.

Wolf also said he would push to revise Pennsylvania’s charter law, which he called “one of the most fiscally irresponsible laws in the nation."

“I want to create a level playing field for all taxpayer-funded public schools," Wolf said, and “increase the accountability and quality of the charter-school system."

It’s the latest effort in Pennsylvania to reshape the charter-school movement, which has grown even as the divisions over it have deepened. More than 143,000 students attended Pennsylvania charter schools last year, up from 79,000 students nearly a decade earlier.

Describing charter schools as increasingly costly to school districts, and in some cases poorly performing, Wolf said the current system “isn’t good for anyone.”

While he listed a number of areas where he would revise state regulations — including requiring transparent charter enrollment policies — Wolf didn’t provide details on how he would achieve them.

Of his proposal, for instance, to increase oversight of privately run charter management companies, Wolf said he would ensure the state is "doing everything to make sure they’re as transparent, accountable, and high quality as we can make them.”

As for his call to update the charter law, Wolf, a Democrat, would need the support of Republican legislative leaders. They generally have been supportive of charters, which they see as needed alternatives to district-run schools.

“We have been talking about charter-school reform since I became governor," Wolf said. "And my actions today are the result of the fact that we haven’t really done anything. So I’m going to do something, and hopefully this will be the start of a conversation.”

Joyce Wilkerson, president of the Philadelphia school board, on Tuesday commended the governor for “stepping up to the plate on this critical issue,” saying state charter law “is outdated and repeatedly ranked as one of the worst in the country.”

But the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools quickly criticized Wolf’s proposal, saying the governor didn’t consult any charter-school leaders.

Nathan Benefield, vice president of the conservative Commonwealth Foundation think tank, said in a statement that Wolf’s proposal “would cut funding for charters, cap enrollment, and place a moratorium on new cyber charter schools, even as tens of thousands of students are on waiting lists for charter schools across the state. In short, it would deny families the schooling options they seek."

Some critics see charters — long supported by Republicans — as a way to chip away not only at the public school systems but also the teachers unions that have long been a potent constituency for Democrats. Charters thrived under former Republican Govs. Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania and Chris Christie in New Jersey.

But the schools are facing new scrutiny in both states. In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy last year ordered a comprehensive review of the state’s charter schools.

Wolf — who acknowledged that some charters are "doing an excellent job” — drew a favorable response Tuesday from several Republican lawmakers.

“Quite frankly, I find it encouraging,” Rep. Curt Sonney (R., Erie), who chairs the House Education Committee, said Tuesday. “I agree it’s long overdue."

Sonney said he planned to introduce cyber charter reform legislation, though he did not know whether House leadership would support it.

In the Senate, Appropriations Committee Chairman Pat Browne (R., Lehigh) called for a special session on charter-school funding, saying the issue had “reached a crisis point."

Pennsylvania’s charter-school funding formula, passed into law in 1997, was “the best available platform at that time,” Browne said in a statement. “However, now it has created an irreconcilable financial conflict between charter and traditional schools which mandates both in-depth review and responsible legislative and executive action to address.”

Under the charter law, school districts fund charter schools based on enrollment. Charter schools have become one of the biggest expenses for school districts, along with pension contributions and special education services.

Charter schools have a large presence in cities like Philadelphia, where about one-third, or 70,000 of the city’s 200,000 public school students attend charters.

The issue isn’t limited to brick-and-mortar charters in urban areas. Districts across the state pay for students to attend cyber charter schools — and at the same rate as brick-and-mortar charters. Pennsylvania has one of the country’s largest cyber-charter school sectors, and researchers have repeatedly flagged the schools’ poor performance on tests.

Wolf on Tuesday cited a June report by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which described the performance of the state’s cyber charters as “overwhelmingly negative."

While the law tasks school districts with authorizing brick-and-mortar charter schools, Pennsylvania’s Department of Education has oversight over cyber charters.

Yet, Wolf could not explain why his administration has allowed most of the state’s cyber charters to operate with expired charter agreements.

In addition, Wolf has not named new members to the state Charter Appeals Board, which decides appeals from charters rejected by school districts and which is populated by Corbett appointees — all serving expired terms.

“I would love to do that," Wolf said Tuesday of making new appointments. “But the board requires Senate confirmation,” and “absent an agreement with the Senate Republicans, … I can’t make appointments.”

“This is part of trying to push all this forward,” he said.