Legislation introduced in the Pennsylvania Senate would give school districts more freedom to convert public schools to charters and set up a new state oversight board. The proposal would also tighten ethics and financial oversight regulations for charter school management.
The bill, introduced by Sen. Jeffrey Piccola (R., Dauphin), Education Committee chairman, is among education-related legislation introduced since January by Republicans seeking to use their control of both legislative houses and the governorship to further an agenda that seeks to expand alternatives to regular public schools.
The bill, which combines elements of two bills introduced last year, has a measure of bipartisan support. Education Committee minority chairman Andrew Dinniman (D., Chester) and Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D., Phila.) are cosponsors. Similar legislation has been introduced in the House.
In a recent interview, Piccola said that the proposed changes reflected what legislators had learned over the last 15 years about how to make sure high-performing charter schools can thrive and how financial mismanagement and academic problems some have experienced can be prevented.
"We've seen . . . how good they can be, and also seen some of their faults, and we're trying to address that," he said.
For a public school to be converted to a charter school now, a school board must approve the change, and more than 50 percent of the school's teachers and parents must agree. The proposed law would allow boards to approve the change by a majority board vote without endorsement by parents and teachers.
In Philadelphia, the School Reform Commission, the governing body, already can convert schools to charter schools by majority vote.
The bill would provide a mechanism for bypassing local school boards by those seeking to create a charter school. It would establish a State Commission on Charter Schools and Cyber Charter Schools that could grant charters and hear appeals of local district rejections.
At present, only local school boards can approve charter applications. Charter-school advocates have said this often leads to applications being rejected in districts where charter schools are seen potential economic drains or unwanted competition.
The new commission, which would be appointed by the governor, the legislature and the Board of Education, would be the only chartering body for cyber charter schools; the state Education Department now handles those applications. School boards and intermediate units would be able to set up cyber charter schools with commission approval.
The legislation, Senate Bill 904, would also lengthen the term of charter renewals from five years to 10 years. It would establish an advisory committee appointed by the Education Department, the legislature, and the state Board of Education to look at how charter schools are financed, and come up with recommendations for changes by November 2012. And it would make appeal easier for groups turned down by a local school board.