The Pennsylvania Senate Education Committee responded Tuesday to disclosures of alleged financial mismanagement at Philadelphia charter schools by unanimously approving a sweeping bill that would increase oversight of the state's 135 charters.
All 11 members of the bipartisan committee voted for the measure, which would create a state charter school office with power to investigate complaints of mismanagement and misconduct, mandate annual training for charter board members, and require charters to make public their annual audits and administrators' salaries.
And, for the first time, the bill would give Philadelphia's city controller the authority to audit city charter schools. The district has about half the charters in the state, with 67.
Sen. Jeffrey E. Piccola (R., Dauphin), the cochairman, said that while the committee supports charter schools, members wanted to close the loopholes that have allowed some to misuse taxpayers' money. The meaure was prompted by Inquirer articles detailing allegations of financial mismanagement and an April charter report by the City Controller's Office on charter schools.
The Democratic cochair, Sen. Andrew E. Dinniman (D., Chester), said he and Piccola hoped the bill would be passed by the legislature with bipartisan support and signed into law by the end of June. The bill does not yet have a sponsor in the House, but no one has opposed the legislation, Dinniman said.
Piccola, a sponsor of the state's original 1997 charter law, said it was time to address "deficiencies that exist in the law that have allowed bad actors to abuse the system."
He added: "If it gets enacted into law in the near future, then I think we will have established - or reestablished - credibility for the charter school movement, and we can move on."
As The Inquirer reported Monday, at least 18 Philadelphia-area charter schools are part of a widening federal criminal investigation, including 13 highlighted in an April report by City Controller Alan Butkovitz.
Dinniman said the Senate Education Committee voted on the bill Tuesday so the measure could soon be acted on by the legislature.
"I don't see any way the legislature could just sit there avoiding what is a very real problem, a problem in which taxpayers have been ripped off and one in which students have been denied a quality education," he said.
Dinniman pointed to Inquirer reporting on problems at charter schools, disclosures in the Butkovitz report, and testimony the committee gathered at an April hearing about the need for eliminating loopholes in state law that have enabled some charter operators to misuse taxpayers' funds.
"There is a certain momentum for change, and the momentum for tightening up the financial oversight is now," he said. "We have made an effort to save charter schools from themselves."
A statewide charter organization, the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, praised the bill's intent but said it hoped the law would preserve "flexibility in providing an innovative approach to education."
The Piccola-Dinniman bill addresses the findings in Butkovitz's report and other recent disclosures.
The controller's investigation found compliant charter boards, apparent conflicts of interest, excessive CEO salaries, and complex real estate arrangements in which charters leased facilities from related organizations.
On Tuesday, Butkovitz, who supports charter schools, praised the Education Committee for acting swiftly.
"I think it does show there is general agreement among those who support charters and charter critics that there needs to be a tightening of the law for fiscal accountability," he said. "It does validate the work this office has done and the work that The Inquirer has done on that subject."
Butkovitz also said he would welcome the opportunity to audit city charter schools. Because he lacked that authority, his recent investigation of city charter schools' finances was limited to public records.
The bill also calls for regular outside audits of charter schools.
The proposed legislation also would clearly prohibit charter employees and board members - as well as their relatives - from doing business with charter schools. It would require charter schools' related nonprofit organizations, which often own a school's building, to make their state and federal tax reports public.
All charter school boards would have to include at least one parent. And the measure would allow charter parents to file a court complaint if they believe a charter's board members are not fulfilling their duties.