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Charter-law overhaul introduced in Pa. Senate

The leadership of the Pennsylvania Senate's Education Committee yesterday introduced promised legislation to overhaul the state's 12-year-old charter-school law and provide greater scrutiny of charters.

The leadership of the Pennsylvania Senate's Education Committee yesterday introduced promised legislation to overhaul the state's 12-year-old charter-school law and provide greater scrutiny of charters.

The proposal, which was introduced by Sen. Jeffrey E. Piccola (R., Dauphin), the majority chair, and Sen. Andrew E. Dinniman (D., West Chester), minority chair, would require the state to increase its oversight of charters and allow colleges and universities to approve charter schools.

The wide-ranging package would require additional oversight of charter-school administrators, board members, and charter-management companies and create a an office in the state Department of Education to investigate allegations of fraud and mismanagement at charters. The bill also would modify the charter application and appeals process.

Lawmakers said the bill, first announced in late October, was drafted "in response to several stories written by The Philadelphia Inquirer on the fiscal abuses of some Philadelphia-based charter schools over the last several months."

At least six area charter schools are part of a widening federal criminal probe, according to sources with knowledge of the investigation.

Piccola said in a statement yesterday that the bill was introduced "not only [to] provide a much needed update to the state's decade-old law, but to address a number of issues that have arisen in the last year as several charter schools, particularly in the Philadelphia region, have been the target of criminal investigations and financial scandals. It's important that this public-school choice option is protected and available to more families, but more controls must be put in place to prevent potential abuse."

There are 127 publicly funded charter schools in the state. More than half - 67 - are in Philadelphia.

Staffers in Piccola's office said public hearings on the measure, which has attracted bipartisan support, would be scheduled after Jan. 1.

In March, the committee heard testimony on the strengths and weaknesses of the 1997 charter law during a hearing in York.

Many of the proposed changes were drawn from a model law released in June by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in Washington.

While the national nonprofit organization is an advocate for the expansion of high-quality charters, the alliance calls for strong oversight and continual monitoring of the publicly funded schools.

"You have to run a tight ship," Nelson Smith, the group's president and chief executive, said yesterday. "There should be no excuse for financial malfeasance, and one way to ensure that is to make sure there are annual audits and periodic oversight."

Meanwhile, the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based advocate of charters, said yesterday that Pennsylvania's existing charter law was the 11th-strongest in the country and gave it a "B."

The center analyzed the laws of 40 states and the District of Columbia to determine whether they were charter-friendly. The study also evaluated whether the state laws promoted the expansion of school choice, provided equitable funding, and allowed charters to operate free "from the bureaucratic entanglements so prevalent in many traditional public schools."

Jeanne Allen, president of the center, characterized Pennsylvania's current law as "good" but said with "some changes, [it] could be even stronger."

Allen said the state should allow entities other than school districts to approve charter schools. She applauded the Piccola-Dinniman proposal, which would allow colleges and universities to approve charter schools.

No only do multiple authorizers lead to more charter options for families, they also provide better oversight than school districts, Allen said.

"Many districts have shown themselves to be lousy monitors," Allen said.

She was critical of the portion of the proposed legislation that would create a state office to provide more charter oversight.

Rather than creating a new office and adding layers of bureaucracy to penalize charters, Allen said the state should punish school districts that fail to provide oversight.

New Jersey's charter law, which gives the state Education Department sole responsibility for approving charters and requires them to meet the same regulations as traditional public schools, received a "C" grade.

A's were awarded to Minnesota, California, and Washington, D.C. for their expansive laws that promote and support charters.