On Monday, the House Education Committee approved House Bill 618, relating to charter schools and cyber charter schools.
We’ve read the bill and compared it to the policy recommendations we’ve published in our issue briefs, Expand High-Quality Choices for Families and Freedom to Succeed: Making Cyber Charter Schools Work—recommendations we believe will help give every child in Pennsylvania access to a great public school.
Here’s what we found:
PennCAN’s Recommendation: Promote strong charter school authorizing by enabling and holding accountable multiple types of authorizers.
- What the bill does: HB 618 does not immediately empower a new authorizing entity. It does, however, call for a Statewide Advisory Commission to explore the option of adding a higher education authorizer of charter schools. HB 618 directs the Commission to evaluate and make recommendations around this option, submitting a final report to the Governor by March 31, 2014.
- Our take: We believe that it is time to empower entities other than school districts to authorize charter schools. For reasons we discuss in our issue brief—minimal staffing and expertise, inadequate attention to quality authorizing, and hostility to charter schools—local districts are not the most effective authorizers. The School District of Philadelphia, for example, has not approved a new charter school in almost four years. Although HB 618 does not take steps to immediately empower a new authorizing entity, we commend the legislature for recognizing the importance of having multiple authorizers, and for exploring the option of empowering higher education institutions to authorize charter schools. This is a step in the right direction.
PennCAN’s Recommendation: For cyber charter schools, establish an independent statewide authorizer with expertise in online education.
- What the Bill Does: HB 618 neither establishes an independent statewide authorizer for cyber charter schools nor addresses the need for an authorizer with expertise in online education.
- Our Take: A responsible authorization process requires expertise and capacity in reviewing applications. The innovative nature of cyber charter schools is exciting, but also places great responsibility on the authorizer. We find it critical that the state recognize the need to develop expertise in online education. If establishing an independent statewide authorizer for cyber charter schools is not feasible, the state should, at a minimum, open an office that specializes in supporting and monitoring cyber charter schools.
PennCAN’s Recommendation: Implement a statewide performance framework for both authorizers and charter schools.
- What the Bill Does: HB 618 directs the State Board of Education to develop a Standard Performance Matrix for the evaluation of charter schools. HB 618 lists the types of objective criteria to be included in the Matrix, including factors such as student performance on assessments, attrition rates, attendance, and measures of parent satisfaction. Local school boards must use the Performance Matrix as the primary factor in evaluating new and renewal charter applicants. The Bill does not directly address the need for a performance framework for authorizers.
- Our Take: As proponents of clear expectations and high standards for the charter sector, we applaud the legislature for requiring that a Performance Matrix be established. The Performance Matrix will bring transparency to the renewal and revocation process, and help ensure that only charter schools with demonstrable results continue to operate in our state. We are also thrilled to see that the Bill’s list of criteria for the Matrix is comprehensive, including valuable but often overlooked measures of success, such as attrition rates. To be even stronger, the Bill should include a performance framework for charter authorizers, in addition to schools.
PennCAN’s Recommendation: Reward high performers with longer renewal periods.
- What the Bill Does: HB 618 directs the State Board of Education, upon developing a Performance Matrix, to determine an academic quality benchmark, the satisfaction of which would qualify a charter school for a ten-year renewal.
- Our Take: We strongly support this provision , which would grant select charter schools longer renewal periods based on exceptional academic performance. As supporters of thoughtful oversight, we believe in shutting down low-performing schools, while rewarding excellent schools. By offering long-term stability, longer renewal periods appropriately reward charter schools for achieving excellence.
PennCAN’s Recommendation: Put a cap on budget surpluses.
- What the Bill Does: HB 618 places limits on charter schools’ unassigned fund balances. The limits range from 8 to 12 percent of the charter school’s total budgeted expenditures, with the highest percentage (12 percent) reserved for charter schools with total budgeted expenditures of $11,999,999 or less. Unassigned fund balances in place on June 30 of each year that exceed the limit must be refunded to the school district within a particular time frame (for the 2012-2013 school year, within 45 days; for all future school years, within 90 days). HB 618 explicitly states that these fund balances cannot be used to pay bonuses to charter administrators or staff members.
- Our Take: While we understand the instinct to set aside some money for the future, we agree that there should be a cap on surplus funds. The range of 8 to 12 percent falls directly in line with our March 2013 policy recommendation, and we support the provision.
PennCAN’s Recommendation: Give cyber charter schools their fair share; reject any proposal for a single statewide tuition rate, but pass fair reforms such as ending the pension Public School Employees’ Retirement PSERS double dip and capping advertising spending.
- What the Bill Does: HB 618 adds the employer’s share of retirement contributions, paid to the PSERS, to the list of expenditures that should be deducted when calculating the per-pupil allotment for cyber schools. HB 618 also adds the cost of food services to the list of deductions. The Bill does not propose a single statewide tuition rate or cap advertising spending
- Our Take: We support this part of the bill and view it as a fair reform. Currently, school districts are required to pay state and local contributions to PSERS, but both districts and cyber charter schools receive reimbursements from the state. As a result, cyber schools are effectively reimbursed twice, a practice that is illogical and unfair. The deduction for food services is also a common sense reform, given that cyber charter schools do not provide food services to their students. We would prefer to see these provisions go one step further by capping advertising spending. We do not support extending the PSERS funding reforms to brick-and-mortars until the funding formula is revised to provide them with facilities funding.