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State Sen. Hughes to House Speaker Turzai: 'Stay the hell out of Philadelphia'

State Sen. Vincent Hughes has a message for House Speaker Mike Turzai.

"Fix the school-funding issue, or stay the hell out of Philadelphia," Hughes (D., Phila.) said in an interview.

Turzai this week inserted himself into Philadelphia charter schools' beef with the School Reform Commission, suggesting that the SRC was running afoul of state law through "overreach."

A number of schools have refused to sign new charter agreements, saying the Philadelphia School District is requiring provisions with which they are uncomfortable. The district wants to be able to change charters' boundaries, for instance, to have a say over how often charter school boards meet, and to require academic standards critics say are stricter than those of the system's own neighborhood schools.

Turzai wrote in a letter to the SRC that the district was trying to "drastically overstep" charter law. He also said that going into state budget season, it would be "tough to justify increases in expenditures to the School District of Philadelphia if the additional money is going to pay for lawyers to draft contracts which go beyond the scope of the law."

On Tuesday, Hughes was furious.

"The number-one issue for Philadelphia education, for education in Pennsylvania, is inequality in education funding," Hughes said. "If he was so damn concerned about Philadelphia kids, he'd be working aggressively to solve this problem. If this was going on in his legislative district, he wouldn't tolerate it."

Pennsylvania lawmakers have passed a new funding formula, but it will take about 20 years for it to fully address funding inequalities, Hughes said. (Others, including experts at the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, say that the inequities will never close under the current formula.)

According to federal data, Pennsylvania has the largest gap in funding between wealthy and poor districts.

Hughes said he saw no overreach on the part of the Philadelphia school system.

"They're not overstepping," he said. "In many cases, they're being too lenient."

Hughes said he was not opposed to charter schools, but did oppose the current charter law, which he said penalizes students in traditional public schools.

Turzai dismissed Hughes' comments.

"He just uses the same rhetoric again and again as opposed to thinking about what's actually best for kids," Turzai said.

Harrisburg sends more than $1 billion to Philadelphia schools -- 10 percent more this year than it did in 2014-15 -- Turzai noted, and the school system has lost students.

"Why is he engaged in a turf war?" Turzai said. "Why isn't he concerned about the viability of charter schools, which some parents and students clearly want?"

Nearly 65,000 students attend 88 charter schools in Philadelphia, with thousands more on waiting lists. The city has by far the largest charter-school population in Pennsylvania.

A School District official also signaled displeasure with Turzai's letter and its implicit threat.

"We were disappointed to receive the speaker's letter, which threatens $1.5 billion of education funding of both traditional public schools and charter schools in the city of Philadelphia," spokesman Kevin Geary said in a statement. "Since charter school funding is growing at over three times the rate of traditional public schools', cutting education funding will hurt charters more than traditional schools.  We believe that approach is wrong."

The district, Geary said, is using national standards for authorizing charter schools.