WHEN the School Reform Commission next votes to approve new charter schools, it'll review one application that carries two familiar names - State Reps. Bill Keller and John Taylor.
Keller and Taylor are part of the "founding coalition" of Philadelphia Polytechnic Charter School. The coalition also includes Vincent Fenerty, director of the Philadelphia Parking Authority.
There is no prohibition against lawmakers and elected officials or heads of public agencies being associated with charter schools.
But there should be.
Imagine the implied pressure that the SRC faces in reviewing Polytechnic's application: Is it likely to reject the application from two lawmakers that have voting power over the school district's budget? We're not saying that Taylor or Keller would let their application affect their behavior in the General Assembly, but that's not the point: the fact that they could is enough to make this practice a bad one.
There are now 81 charter schools in Philadelphia. Although the broader educational choices they offer have been good, the oversight, transparency and accountability of charters is very much a work in progress. That at least 18 city charter schools have been or are under criminal investigation is not the only evidence of the need for reform. Also problematic is the funding formula: The school district gives each charter an allocation based on the number of pupils it enrolls, and the money comes out of the overall money the district gets. Charter school budgets are audited, but there is little in the way of independent oversight, which explains why some of the schools have been criticized for the high salaries they were paying their executives, and how many family members were on the payroll.
The point is, charter schools are funded by public money but are run independently from the district - and from public scrutiny. Adding elected officials into this mix makes for a potentially lethal stew.
Of course, we have a rich history of lawmakers' involvement: Until last year, state Sen. Anthony Williams served as chairman of the board of the Hardy Williams Charter School; John Perzel's wife founded a school and served on its board; Vincent Fumo and Dwight Evans have been instrumental in establishing charter schools.
And Evans became the poster boy for the problems of lawmakers' ties to educational institutions that get public money when he interfered in a community process to pick an educational provider for Martin Luther King High School to favor a group with which he had close ties.
Lawmakers who are committed to improving education can, and should, do it the old-fashioned way - through budget allocations. They should stay far away from the obvious conflicts of interest that stem from starting their own schools.