In the latest sign of increased scrutiny of charter schools, Gov. Wolf announced Wednesday the creation of a division within the state Department of Education dedicated to assisting and improving such schools.
Establishing the Division of Charter Schools "will allow us to maximize our resources to not only ensure charters are being properly supported, but that they are being held accountable to taxpayers," the governor said in a statement.
Privately managed but publicly funded, charter schools have exploded in the commonwealth. During the 2014-15 school year, 176 charter schools with 132,531 students operated statewide. The model has stirred advocates and critics.
A report last week by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association said that charter school administrative expenditures were nearly double those of conventional public schools, and that their highest-ranking officials are paid far more. It also said such schools spend less on instruction than traditional school districts, and more on support services and facilities.
This month, the state's auditor general renewed his concerns about a lack of accounting for reimbursements paid by the state to such schools.
Charter school funding also became a sticking point in this year's state budget negotiations. At issue was a House bill that would, among other changes, create a commission that would recommend a formula for funding charters, and establish a state-level board to authorize charter schools.
Public school advocates believed the bill would strip local districts of their authority to cap the number of students enrolled in charters. Legislators also were split on the bill. The measure didn't get enough traction, but legislators said they would try to revive it in the fall.
Wolf's office said the new division would assist charter schools in setting goals for student achievement, increasing parent and community involvement, and ensuring academic and financial responsibility.
Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan said the office will have four employees, including a chief, who has not been hired yet. In addition to technical support, the office will provide increased site visits to charter schools, post annual charter reports online, and evaluate student achievement data, among other things.
Tim Eller, a spokesman for the Keystone Alliance of Public Charter Schools, said he was happy the state wants to partner with charters to help improve them, but said many of the functions that the new office will perform - such as technical support, school improvement plans, and working with educators - were already being done by the Department of Education.
"It's a duplication of services," he said.