THE SAME BRAND of pixie dust that Bernard Madoff sprinkled over his victims seems to have settled in a plume over Harrisburg, at least when it comes to charter schools.

A bill making the rounds in the House, introduced by Thomas Killion, R-Chester/Delaware, could dramatically expand the number of charter schools in the state, by allowing charter applicants in the lowest-performing school districts to sidestep the current local application process and apply directly to a new state authority. This new board would be made up of political appointees from the governor and both caucuses. A hearing on the bill - which also contains other positive reforms requiring stronger reporting and auditing - was scheduled last week, but canceled.

This bill has us alarmed for a number of reasons. The biggest reason: a recent report from Stanford University raises serious questions about how well the state's charter schools do against traditional public schools. Stanford's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that in Pennsylvania, 25 percent of charters perform better than noncharter public schools in reading and math, but about 50 percent perform worse, and 25 percent perform the same. Cyber charters were found to perform significantly worse than their public-school counterparts.

Further, removing local school districts from the authorizing or oversight role of charters presents the further danger of creating a separate system of education run by politicians, not educators.

While we agree with charter advocates that charters can provide a chance for innovation and improvement in education, the key word is "can." We celebrate the ones who do. But based on their rush to see that more charters open, many lawmakers seem to read the word "can" as "automatically." In light of the research saying otherwise, we can only blame the pixie dust.

It's clear that charter reform is necessary, and is critical for Philadelphia, where the majority of the state's charters operate. But the reforms that are found in Killion's bill, as well as two larger "reform" bills in the House and Senate, do little to address the most important issue: assuring high academic performance. (They also do little to engage the public in any dialogue.) In fact, the bills pave the way for more charters with less local oversight.

That's a recipe for a new race to the bottom. *