Pennsylvania's charter school laws have led to the rise of two separate and unequal educational systems, according to state Rep. James Roebuck (D-Phila.), who released a report this week calling for increased transparency and oversight of charters.
"If you look at the original legislation that created charters (in 1997), that language talks about charters being innovative ways of doing education that could create models for replication," Roebuck, chair of the House Education Committee, said in an interview Thursday.
But there has been no evaluation of Pennsylvania's now 173 charter schools to determine whether they're worth duplicating, he said.
"So what you've created in reality is not a system of innovation or creating educational excellence, you've created what in reality is a separate and unequal school system," Roebuck said. "We now have two different public school systems – traditional public schools and charters."
Referring to some charter schools' spending and borrowing practices as a proverbial "Wild West," Roebuck's report cites a recent Philly.com investigative story that found Philadelphia charters have racked up nearly $500 million in debt to acquire new facilities, often with high interest rates, while paying millions more in fees to consultants and brokers for arranging the transactions.
"I think that the reality is that there's very little oversight, and there's been very little accountability or effort to monitor that (debt) effectively," Roebuck said.
Charter schools are not subject to the same financial reporting requirements as traditional district schools — though charters are also funded by taxpayers.
The political will to achieve increased charter school accountability and government oversight remains tenuous, Roebuck said, but not impossible.
Several past legislative attempts have been undermined by provisions stripped from or added to reform bills as they bounce between the state House and Senate, before they are passed, he said.
"Part of what we do in legislation is when you have a bill that's important and someone wants something, they will say, 'the price of my support is you put this idea into the legislation,'" Roebuck said.
Many lawmakers are reluctant to take up such a politically controversial issue, particularly if they represent rural districts, where charter schools are fewer and have had less of an impact on traditional schools.
"If the problem becomes perceived not just as 'your problem and we don't have to deal with your problem,' but it becomes a universal problem, there's a chance we could get very meaningful legislation that would not only address the issues but would help all schools do better," Roebuck said. "But that requires compromise from both parties. We have great difficulty right now compromising on anything."