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Controversial legislation that would overhaul the state s 16-year-old charter school law is now positioned for a vote in the state Senate in the coming weeks.Charter school reform legislation is moving again in the Pennsylvania General Assembly after hitting roadblocks in the last two years.The Patriot-News/file
The Senate Appropriations Committee approved an on Tuesday by a 15-11 near-party-line vote.
While this bill will continue to be a work in progress, supporters hailed it as a positive step forward toward addressing flaws that have emerged from the state's experience with these independent public schools.
The bill is projected to produce savings to school districts about million next year and the state, about million from eliminating overpayment of pension costs and a 5 percent funding cut to cyber charter schools.
The committee defeated several Democratic amendments that sought to appease concerns raised by school districts about controlling the fiscal impact of charters on districts and losing local control.
The revised bill would allow for the first time an entity other than the state and school districts to authorize charter schools to open and oversee them by adding universities to that list.
It also provides for most charters to receive payments directly from the state instead of routing them through school districts as is currently the case.
It allows charters schools to have their charters renewed for 10 year maximums, as opposed to the current five years. It removes caps on charter school enrollments.
And among other changes aimed at increasing accountability and transparency on charter schools, the bill would form an advisory panel to craft a new funding formula for cyber and brick-and-mortar charter schools.
Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster County, who is the bill s sponsor, said the intent of his bill is to address some of the lessons learned over the past decade and a half while ensuring the state s charter schools are of high quality.
We know there are areas of the law that need to be improved both to ensure top quality education but also to ensure the charter schools in place are accountable to the taxpayer, to students and parents, Smucker said.
The proposal is emerging as the Senate s response to a that the charter school community found too district-friendly. Negotiations with the House on rectifying the differences have not yet begun, Smucker said.
For example, the House version didn t include the provision that allows universities to be charter school authorizers.
Some district-friendly groups and lawmakers oppose that change, saying it removes local control from districts that foot the bill for the students who live within their borders and opt for charter education.
Senate Appropriations Committee Democratic Chairman Vincent Hughes of Philadelphia said allowing an entity with no connection to a school district to establish a charter school that district is responsible for funding is beyond belief and bad public policy.
But Senate Education Committee Chairman Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon County, said prior to the committee meeting, the idea of university authorizers grew out of the experience in the 13 other states that allow that practice.
States that are using it like Michigan and New York are finding great success and their charter schools are performing better than ours and that s where this is coming from, Folmer said.
An aide to Smucker said some university presidents have expressed interested in authorizing charters but declined to specify which ones.
In response to concerns about university authorizers, Smucker s revised bill introduced parameters on which universities could open charter schools and where those charters could be located.
Only the two dozen or so universities headquartered in the state that offer doctoral degrees in education with at least 2,000 students could grant charters that allow a school to operate anywhere in the state.
Universities offering bachelor s in education with at least 2,000 students could grant charters to schools that operate in the county where the university is located. And any other university with at least 2,000 students could open charter schools located within the school district where the university is located.
One of the concerns we heard was that universities could authorize schools at a distance from their location and the other concern, a legitimate one, was to ensure the authorizers are providing the oversight needed to ensure the charter school is performing well, Smucker said.
Still, Susan Spicka, co-founder of Education Matters in the Cumberland Valley, a midstate-based public education activist group, said this provision is still problematic.
Even if a local university authorizes a charter school, the board of the university is legally obligated to their own schools, and not to the local taxpayers who will pay tuition bills. It is taxation without representation, Spicka said.
Furthermore, Pennsylvania State Education Association spokesman David Broderic said expanding the number of charter schools will only drain money away from financially strapped districts.
This is no time to be allowing private entities to authorize charters, Broderic said. School districts are already reeling from massive school funding cuts.
Even the charter school community has lingering concerns about the bill.
However Robert Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Cyber Schools, was pleased to see some movement on this latest effort to revise the 1997 law. The three attempts to move charter reform legislation in the past two years fell short of crossing the finish line in both chambers.
We re pleased to see it move forward and we ll continue to work with the General Assembly on refining some of the issues and clarifying some of things in there that need clarification, he said.
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