Wolf says char­ter school law ‘flawed’

He calls for changes to fund­ing for­mu­las that could ease Al­len­town School Dis­trict deficit

The Morning Call - - FRONT PAGE - By Jacqueline Palochko

Gov. Tom Wolf called Tues­day for changes in the spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion and cy­ber­char­ter fund­ing for­mu­las that, if adopted by a re­luc­tant Leg­is­la­ture, would save Al­len­town and other fi­nan­cially strapped school dis­tricts mil­lions.

Calling the char­ter school law “flawed” and “out­dated,” Wolf told re­porters in Al­len­town he also is in­struct­ing the state De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion to de­velop new reg­u­la­tions that would al­low dis­tricts to limit stu­dent en­roll­ment at char­ters that do not pro­vide a “high­qual­ity” ed­u­ca­tion and to boost over­sight over char­ter school man­age­ment com­pa­nies.

Demo­crat Wolf’s call for changes in re­im­burse­ment for­mu­las dic­tat­ing how much pub­lic school dis­tricts must pay char­ter and cy­ber­schools for stu­dents would save dis­tricts like Al­len­town, now fac­ing a $6 mil­lion deficit, mil­lions.

But pas­sage in the Repub­li­can-con­trolled state Leg­is­la­ture, which created the char­ter school sys­tem, is far from guar­an­teed. Un­less that hap­pens, Al­len­town re­mains over a fi­nan­cial bar­rel, de­pen­dent on its char­ter schools to ac­cept a vol­un­tary 10% re­duc­tion in pay­ments for the 2019-20 fis­cal year.

Ana Mey­ers, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Pennsylvan­ia Coali­tion of Pub­lic Char­ter Schools, called Wolf ’s pro­pos­als “bla­tant at­tacks on char­ter schools.” Mey­ers also claimed that Wolf could be abus­ing his au­thor­ity through ex­ec­u­tive or­der and reg­u­la­tory ac­tion.

“We will be watch­ing how the gover­nor im­ple­ments his pro­posal in the com­ing days and weeks, and are pre­pared to chal­lenge this ad­min­is­tra­tion in court if the Char­ter School Law is bro­ken in any way,” Mey­ers said in a state­ment.

At Harrison-Mor­ton Mid­dle School, Wolf said he wants a “level play­ing field” for all char­ter and pub­lic schools. He pointed out some char­ters are per­form­ing well, but oth­ers aren’t, es­pe­cially cy­ber char­ters. With the gover­nor were Al­len­town School Dis­trict lead­ers, state Reps. Pete Sch­weyer, DAl­len­town, and Steve Sa­muel­son, D-Beth­le­hem, and oth­ers.

Nei­ther Wolf nor Al­len­town Su­per­in­ten­dent Thomas Parker would say how much money dis­tricts like Al­len­town would save un­der the gover­nor’s pro­pos­als. Wolf said “mil­lions.” Parker said the plan “will im­pact the (dis­trict’s) bud­get, but I can’t de­ter­mine what that im­pact will be.”

Reps. Sch­weyer and Mike Schloss­berg, both Al­len­town Democrats, said the for­mula changes, if en­acted, would save Al­len­town “north of $10 mil­lion.”

Shortly af­ter Wolf’s news con­fer­ence in Al­len­town, state Sen. Pat Browne re­leased a state­ment calling for a spe­cial ses­sion on char­ter school fund­ing.

Be­sides propos­ing a leg­isla

tive change in the ar­eas of spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing and cy­ber­char­ter tu­ition pay­ments, Wolf is also ask­ing the state De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion to de­velop reg­u­la­tions to:

Al­low dis­tricts to limit stu­dent en­roll­ment at char­ters that do not pro­vide a high-qual­ity, eq­ui­table ed­u­ca­tion to stu­dents.

Re­quire trans­par­ent char­ter school ad­mis­sion and en­roll­ment poli­cies that do not dis­crim­i­nate based on in­tel­lec­tual or ath­letic abil­ity, race, gen­der or dis­abil­ity.

Ramp up over­sight of char­ter school man­age­ment com­pa­nies.

Es­tab­lish a clear process that re­quires char­ters to ac­cu­rately doc­u­ment their costs and pre­vent char­ters from over­charg­ing dis­tricts for ed­u­ca­tional ser­vices.

Speak­ers at Tues­day’s event blamed char­ter schools for school dis­tricts’ fi­nan­cial woes, in­clud­ing rais­ing taxes. Parker pointed out at Tues­day’s event his dis­trict’s fund bal­ance has gone from more than $30 mil­lion a few years ago to noth­ing. “We are at the cliff,” he said.

Beth­le­hem Area Su­per­in­ten­dent Joseph Roy, a vo­cal critic of char­ters, be­gan his com­ments with: “Can I get an amen?” Roy called char­ter school and tra­di­tional pub­lic school fund­ing a “sep­a­rate and un­equal sys­tem.”

In re­cent weeks, Wolf has gone to bat­tle with char­ter schools. Last week, he called char­ter schools “pri­vate.” Char­ter schools are pub­licly funded but op­er­ated by un­elected boards.

There are 15 cy­ber­char­ters in Pennsylvan­ia. Cy­ber­char­ters, which of­ten per­form low aca­dem­i­cally, draw the ire of dis­tricts that are forced to pay tu­ition to them but have no over­sight. There has been much dis­cus­sion sur­round­ing char­ter school changes, es­pe­cially the fund­ing sys­tem for cy­ber­char­ters.

Al­len­town paid more than $5 mil­lion in cy­ber tu­ition for the 2017-18 school year.

Nathan G. Mains, CEO of the Pennsylvan­ia School Boards As­so­ci­a­tion, said in a state­ment: “We are glad the gover­nor has rec­og­nized the cri­sis, which has de­vel­oped in char­ter school fund­ing, ac­count­abil­ity, per­for­mance, and trans­parency, and ap­plaud his an­nounced in­ten­tion to pri­or­i­tize ac­tion to re­form this sec­tor of ed­u­ca­tion.”

Wolf ’s news re­lease says that “the Al­len­town School Dis­trict’s struc­tural bud­get deficit can­not be fixed with­out char­ter school re­form.”

In June, Al­len­town passed a $341.8 mil­lion bud­get that was only bal­anced if char­ter schools agree to a tu­ition re­duc­tion.

Al­len­town has been fac­ing fi­nan­cial is­sues for awhile. In April, the dis­trict told the school board it was al­most $8 mil­lion short in the 2018-19 bud­get, mostly from spending more on salaries than ex­pected.

Af­ter two con­tentious meet­ings that in­volved lengthy dis­cus­sions, the school board ul­ti­mately de­cided to take out a $10 mil­lion loan to avert fi­nan­cial cri­sis.

But the 2019-20 bud­get still loomed with an ini­tial deficit of $21 mil­lion. With Wolf’s pro­posal, that bud­get has been bal­anced.

Last year, the dis­trict ini­tially faced a $28 mil­lion deficit for the 2018-19 bud­get, but was able to carve it down.

Law­mak­ers Browne, Sch­weyer and Schloss­berg were in­stru­men­tal in se­cur­ing an ex­tra $10 mil­lion for Al­len­town, no-strings at­tached.

Wolf

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