A controversial proposal that would deny public access to records of private managers of charter schools has surfaced again in the Pennsylvania legislature after it was rebuffed during the summer.
Disagreement over the proposed exemption to the state's Right-to-Know law was one of the reasons that a package of charter law changes submitted in late June was shelved until this fall.
The proposal was part of a 53-page amendment inserted into a special education funding bill in an effort to get the charter changes passed along with the budget.
It says the Right-to-Know law applies to charters, "except records of vendors of local agencies shall not be accessible." Charter schools are listed as local agencies in the Right-to-Know law. "Vendors" would include private management groups that run charter schools.
Sen. Andy Dinniman (D., Chester) said last week that the House Republican leadership wants to include the same language in charter law changes being discussed again this fall. Dinniman called on the Senate to reject the proposal, as it did in June.
The proposed package of charter law amendments, which includes a series of accountability measures for the schools, "purports to promote greater transparency for charters," Dinniman added. But "at the same time, it would destroy transparency with this language. The public has the right to see where its money goes. Every legislator should support that."
Rep. Tom Killion (R., Delaware), the author of the proposal, said he did not intend to create a sweeping Right-to-Know exception.
"If a public dollar is involved, the records should be open to the public, but not beyond that," he said. His main intent, Killion said, was to make sure that if a charter vendor has "another business, that should not be covered" by the law.
But lawyer Michael Berry, the vice president of the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition, an open-records advocacy group, said the proposed exception could "gut" the provisions pertaining to charter managers and contractors with local governments and other local agencies.
"When you take away the ability to scrutinize contractors of public agencies, you take away . . . the ability to have oversight of these agencies and to understand where their money is going and how the public is or is not benefiting from that," he said.
In an e-mail, Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), said: "Negotiations on charter reform legislation are ongoing, with a number of issues yet to be resolved, including this one. We hope to send strong charter reform legislation to the governor for his signature the week of Oct. 15."
Rep. Paul Clymer (R., Bucks), chairman of the Education Committee, said he had not been involved in discussions this fall about the proposed charter law changes. He added: "I have not found a compelling reason why certain agencies [like charter vendors] should get an exception. . . . I support the view that the more open you have things, the better. Charters should be on the same playing field as public schools," which are subject to the law.
Still, Clymer said, it is hard to vote on legislation that includes some objectionable items "when it includes other issues where the public says we need reforms."
Dinniman, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he has been working for some time with Senate Republican Education Chair Jeffrey Piccola and others to craft a series of charter law changes. They would set academic standards for charters and include other long-awaited measures, such as covering charter board members and employees under state ethics law, and conflict-of-interest regulations, requiring annual independent charter audits and setting up a commission to look at how charters are funded.
The main sticking points, he said, were the Right-to-Know law exception and differences about whether to establish a state board that could approve of non-cyber charter applications. Currently, only local school boards can grant charters, except for cyber-charters, which apply to the state Education Department.