Charter Schools a Priority for PA Legislature This Month

The Pennsylvania Legislature has convened for a short session before the election — and charter school reform is heading up the agenda.

The Patriot News is reporting that Governor Tom Corbett is hoping that now is the time for the bill that would give the state more power in the regulation of charter schools. Right before the legislature adjourned its summer session in June, it came “within a sentence” of putting a version of the bill on Corbett’s desk.

Although Corbett is making charters a priority — he said last week that reforming the way charter schools in the state are regulated will aid all education stake holders in PA — it will not be the only issue before lawmakers this session.

Just as important might be behind-the-scenes work on big-ticket issues such as transportation funding and pension reform that are too complex and controversial to finish before the Nov. 6 election but could get needed early attention for action in 2013.

This will be the last bit of business for the legislature before November’s election day, which sees all Senate and House seats up for reelection. For many, that means the “optics” of the business being handled in the next month is almost as important as the substance. Although there will still be an opportunity to vote before the new Senate and House classes are seated next year, lawmakers made a pledge to avoid holding votes after November to make sure that lame-duck office holders will not be weighing in on “critical issues.”

The legislation dealing with charter schools has been in the making over the past several years, and the current version deals with the powers set aside for a state agency that will be created to handle charter school oversight. Some wish the panel to be solely responsible for approving charter schools and keeping an eye on their progress, but issues are intertwined as lawmakers are also discussing making it easier for districts to convert public schools into charters.

While many insiders think those disagreements will block the reform bill again, Pileggi said both are self-contained concepts that don’t have to be included in the bill. Others have suggested they could be used as leverage to gain support down the road for undoubtedly controversial changes that the proposed funding commission would recommend.

Charters are currently overseen by local school boards, a situation that Bob Fayfich, the executive director for Pennsylvania Coalition for Public Charter Schools, says makes for too many inconsistencies in how charter school performance is assessed.

“When you look at a lot of the issues developing in some charters, a lot of it has its roots in either nonexistent or improper oversight. … So it’s not in the long-term best interest of any good charter school to not have a strong authorizer,” Fayfich said.