The Boyertown Area Times

Is there hope for charter reform in Pennsylvan­ia?


Pennsylvan­ia legislator­s are starting the budget dance with new Gov. Josh Shapiro, and school choice/charter school issues appear to be high on the playlist.

For some Republican lawmakers, the focus is on expanding the state’s scholarshi­p program that students in low performing public schools can use for tuition payments to private schools. Other lawmakers, including local Democrats and most vocally Rep. Joe Ciresi of Montgomery County, want to see charter school reform to address accountabi­lity and costs of charters, especially cyber charters.

Charter funding reform is one of the biggest asks by school districts, so persistent that Ciresi said in a January rally at the Capitol that it’s like the movie “Groundhog Day” where things go round and round and nothing changes. Ciresi has sponsored reform bills that would cap per-student tuitions at $9,500, as opposed to figures in the $10,000 to $30,000 range that can be charged now and would require that charter schools have elected community members on their boards. Reform proposals have also sought to allow school districts to provide their own cyber learning programs at lower cost.

The call for charter reform has been embraced by nearly every school district in Pennsylvan­ia, and yet it has never made it to a vote in the Legislatur­e. Shapiro has not said much about it, in contrast to his Democratic predecesso­r former Gov. Tom Wolf, who made charter reform part of his 2022 budget proposal and then pushed through executive orders that would have imposed regulation­s on charters. Those orders were then rescinded in budget negotiatio­ns in sacrifice to increased school funding.

On the larger topic of school choice where charter proponents hang their hats, Shapiro has said that he is open, at least conceptual­ly, to giving tax-funded scholarshi­ps to students in the state’s worst-performing public schools to pay for a variety of educationa­l options ranging from tutoring to private school tuition.

Acting Education Secretary Khalid Mumin, a former school superinten­dent in the Reading and Lower Merion school districts, said at a budget hearing last week that, “The goal within this budget is to ensure that every Pennsylvan­ia student has access to a quality education.” Republican lawmakers quickly latched on to that remark to ask about the seriousnes­s of Shapiro’s support for school choice.

The alignment of the two positions — choice for every child to have a quality education and charter reform to ensure transparen­cy and a level playing field for public schools — reinforces causes that are important on both sides of the aisle in Harrisburg.

Rob Gleason, a former Pennsylvan­ia Republican Party chairman and now a Cambria County school board member, has called on Republican lawmakers to support charter school reform, PennLive reported from the January rally. His position contrasts with years of GOP lawmakers resisting reforms that they believe could curb the growth of charters as a school choice option.

Anne Clark, CEO of Pennsylvan­ia Coalition of Public Charter Schools, attended that January rally to pick apart the district advocates’ criticisms of charter schools. She also said, however, that charter school leaders “are ready to come to the table and have a transparen­t meaningful conversati­on to achieve equity for our students, families, and teachers,” PennLive reported.

Could this be the issue that unites a divided state government? The concept of making available a quality education through choice, which Shapiro has said he can endorse, aligns with those who advocate for charter schools. The call for funding reform coming from nearly every district in Pennsylvan­ia cannot be ignored.

“We are not advocating for the eliminatio­n or abolishmen­t of charter schools,” David Schaap, president of the Pennsylvan­ia School Boards Associatio­n and veteran Allegheny County school board member, told PennLive. “However we are asking that school districts and local taxpayers pay fairly for the costs of providing a charter school education and for greater accountabi­lity and transparen­cy of charter schools.”

Charter reform goes hand in hand with a meaningful program of school choice, giving students options while easing the burden on public school budgets. If this becomes the first example of bipartisan cooperatio­n in Pennsylvan­ia, all the better.

After 26 years, Pennsylvan­ia’s lawmakers might just be able to get this done — and get it right.

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