Char­ter ex­pan­sion bill is all tricks, no treats for tax­pay­ers

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OPINION - Lawrence Fein­berg is a school di­rec­tor in Haver­ford Town­ship, Delaware County, and also serves on the Gov­ern­ing Board of the Penn­syl­va­nia School Boards As­so­ci­a­tion.

Hal­loween is just around the cor­ner, but there is some­thing far scarier in the halls of the state Capi­tol. While pri­vate char­ter op­er­a­tors could po­ten­tially get a big treat in the form of House Bill 530, the rest of us will be hold­ing a bag full of tricks. And sadly, the ones who will suf­fer are our kids.

With only a few days left on the leg­isla­tive cal­en­dar, leg­is­la­tors are try­ing to push through char­ter ex­pan­sion with HB 530. Those in fa­vor are dress­ing it up in the best cos­tume they have and pass­ing it off as char­ter school re­form. It is any­thing but. The state’s most re­cent School Per­for­mance Pro­file scores show that only 22 per­cent of char­ters achieved a score of 70 or higher. So why are leg­is­la­tors so quick to al­low unchecked ex­pan­sion of th­ese schools and wast­ing of tax dol­lars?

There are many good char­ter schools out there. They serve a valu­able piece of the ed­u­ca­tion puz­zle in our state. How­ever, the lack of ac­count­abil­ity and trans­parency is some­thing that tax­pay­ers should not tol­er­ate. If HB 530 would be­come law char­ters would be able to ig­nore en­roll­ment caps, hold higher fund bal­ances than their tra­di­tional school coun­ter­parts, open schools in more than one lo­ca­tion with­out per­mis­sion from the au­tho­riz­ing en­tity, and won’t need to par­tic­i­pate in the state eval­u­a­tion sys­tem for teach­ers and prin­ci­pals re­quired of other schools, to name a few.

Au­thors of HB 530 also made sure to stack the decks in fa­vor of char­ters through a new Char­ter School Fund­ing Ad­vi­sory Com­mis­sion the bill cre­ates. The pur­pose of the com­mis­sion is to ex­plore is­sues re­lated to char­ter schools and make rec­om­men­da­tions. Its mem­bers in­clude rep­re­sen­ta­tives from char­ter schools, the sec­re­tary of ed­u­ca­tion, leg­is­la­tors and mem­bers cho­sen by leg­is­la­tors, and school busi­ness man­agers. Oddly, school di­rec­tors who are charged with au­tho­riz­ing char­ter schools (and who are re­spon­si­ble for rais­ing lo­cal rev­enue from their neigh­bors to sup­port ed­u­ca­tion) have no seat on the com­mis­sion. Also, the cur­rent six-mem­ber Char­ter School Ap­peal Board is ex­panded to nine. Two of the three new po­si­tions are re­served for char­ter school ad­min­is­tra­tors and trustees.

As schools con­sol­i­date and state pop­u­la­tions con­tinue to drop, many schools are find­ing that they need to shut down school build­ings. Cur­rently, schools can work within cer­tain pa­ram­e­ters to sell or lease th­ese build­ings. HB 530 re­quires schools to first of­fer th­ese build­ings to char­ters on first right of re­fusal, sim­ply ig­nor­ing the wishes of the lo­cal tax­pay­ers who paid for th­ese build­ings and may have other de­sired uses for the fa­cil­i­ties.

One fi­nal con­cern is a new per­for­mance ma­trix cre­ated by HB 530 that would be used to mea­sure the aca­demic per­for­mance of char­ter schools and to as­sess re­newal terms. This ma­trix is the only mea­sure that may be used by school boards for eval­u­at­ing a char­ter school. In cur­rent law, char­ters can be re­voked for poor aca­demic per­for­mance. Ad­di­tion­ally, un­der case law, if a char­ter school does not meet spe­cific, mea­sur­able aca­demic bench­marks re­quired un­der fed­eral law it may be sub­ject to char­ter re­vo­ca­tion if the send­ing school dis­tricts are per­form­ing bet­ter. House Bill 530 elim­i­nates the abil­ity to com­pare char­ter schools and their send­ing school dis­tricts, and un­der­mines the orig­i­nal in­tent of the Char­ter School Law to cre­ate schools that pro­vide some­thing above and beyond than pro­vided by tra­di­tional pub­lic schools. Oh, and guess who cre­ates this ma­trix? The pre­vi­ously men­tioned com­mis­sion that is weighted in fa­vor of char­ter school rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

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