Its sponsors say it is an urgently needed and long-overdue package of reforms for a burgeoning system, but critics contend that Pennsylvania's hotly debated charter-school bill would speed the decline of some conventional public schools.
The legislature is expected to act soon - perhaps in the next few weeks - on Senate Bill 1085, which would embody the first major changes since the once-experimental schools began expanding rapidly across Pennsylvania in the late 1990s.
This year, the Philadelphia School District alone will pay $708 million to charter schools.
One element of the proposal is a cut in the taxpayer funding formula for the state's 15 cyber charters - online schools that have been plagued by scandal and low academic achievement.
But a growing band of public-education advocates is rallying against the bill. While supporting cuts for cyber schools, the opponents say other parts of the bill would speed an already rapid exodus of students from public schools to charters.
That, in turn, would worsen the funding crisis in struggling districts such as Philadelphia and Chester Upland.
Critics, including the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and the Education Law Center in Philadelphia, say they are particularly worried about a provision in the bill that would allow Pennsylvania's colleges and universities to open charter schools without approval from local school boards - even though the districts would have to partially fund the schools.
"It will destroy the local taxpayer voice into whether or not there should be charter schools in their district," said Joan Duvall-Flynn, who chairs the education committee for the Pennsylvania NAACP. "It's taxation without representation."
The bill, sponsored by State Sen. Lloyd Smucker (R., Lancaster), won preliminary approval from the Appropriations Committee last month. Smucker has said the measure aims not only to save money through the cyber-charter cuts and reducing pension funding for some charter employees, but also would require open meetings and regular audits, and create a commission to study a fair funding formula.
Joseph Watkins, the state-appointed receiver for the Chester Upland School District, supports the bill, saying that in the short term it could save the district more than $1.5 million annually in cyber-charter reimbursements and retirement payments.
Under the bill, charter-renewal periods would double, from five to 10 years, and terms of the schools' charters could be amended without permission from local officials. In Philadelphia, the School District would have no authority over charters.
The bill would create an 18-member Charter School Funding Advisory Commission, consisting of the secretary of education; six legislators, four of them from the majority party; and, appointed by the governor, 11 representatives of charters, school districts, and a university.
"The commission in this bill is only designed to consider charter school funding needs, not the funding needs of our neighborhood school district schools, nor how the needs of both are intertwined," said Education Law Center attorney David Lapp. "In addition, the commission is not bipartisan. Sixteen of the 18 members come from, or will be appointed by, the majority party."
Districts contribute fixed amounts for students who attend charters. The law center holds that since they tend not to serve the most-vulnerable students, charters impose a burden on poorer districts where a high percentage of pupils are enrolled in charters. With their hefty charter contributions, the districts have less money available for their needy students, the group said.
The primary law establishing charter schools - independently operated, often with unique curriculums, funded through tax dollars - in Pennsylvania was enacted in 1997, and proponents say it is in dire need of an update.
Of about 176 brick-and-mortar charter schools across the state, more than half are in Philadelphia. Statewide, enrollment has risen sharply, to about 119,500 students.
"Pennsylvania was on the leading edge of charter schools. Now, all these years later, other states have more modern laws," said Justin Quinn, spokesman for Smucker. "This legislation is necessary because there are all kinds of problems school districts have with the funding formula, questions about the effectiveness of cyber charter schools and charter schools in general."
He acknowledged that "there is going to be additional work with this legislation to make sure people are on board."
One point of particular concern, said Lawrence Feinberg, a Haverford Township school board member who heads the Keystone State Education Coalition, which opposes the bill, is the language giving colleges and universities free rein to open charters.
Feinberg said he feared that a charter company would be able to open a school under the brand name of a college or university in exchange for a donation to the institution.
Quinn said that while concerns about so-called university authorizers were valid, "the positives we've seen in other states far outweigh that."
The acting president of Widener University, Steve Wilhite, said he believes the measure could encourage more higher-learning institutions to serve students in struggling communities. Widener has launched the first university-sponsored charter, the Widener Partnership Charter School, in Chester, which was aided in 2012 by a $1 million grant from the Peco-Exelon Foundation.
A university-authorized charter "can serve its community while at the same time providing important educational opportunities for students as well as faculty and staff of the university," Wilhite said.
Such arguments do not sway critics such as Duvall-Flynn, who said the language regarding university-backed charters is too loose.
"It is designed cleverly to dismantle any local system," she argued, adding that "each of these children have a little backpack of money attached to them. When the child leaves his classroom, he takes his backpack with him."
BY THE NUMBERS
Number of cyber charter schools
Approximate number of brick-and-mortar charter schools
Approximate number of students attending charter schools in Pennsylvania.
Amount the Philadelphia School District expects to pay charter schools this year.