Radio PA Roundtable – October 30-November 1, 2015

On this week’s Radio PA Roundtable: legislative gridlock, police department consolidation and the impact of the state budget impasse on charter schools.

Click the audio player below to hear the full broadcast:

Radio PA Roundtable – October 18, 2013

On this week’s Radio PA Roundtable, a proposal to eliminate property taxes was the focus of a study presented to the Senate Finance Committee this week; the Kudzu Bug is preparing to invade PA; and state Senators grapple with charter school reform proposals.

Radio PA Roundtable is a 30-minute program featuring in-depth reporting, commentary and analysis on the top news stories of the week.

Click the audio player below to hear the full broadcast:

House Majority Proposes Charter, Cyber Charter Funding Changes

The cyber school funding formula is at the center of the latest charter school debate in Harrisburg.  House Republicans unveiled a package of bills on Friday, which would allow school districts to make four additional deductions when calculating payments to cyber charter schools. 

“Our children are being treated as second-class citizens in the education world, and it’s not fair,” says PA Families for Public Cyber Schools Executive Director Jenny Bradmon.  On average, she says charter schools are already receiving just 70% of what it costs a school district to educate a child. 

But state Rep. Mike Reese (R-Westmoreland/Fayette) says it’s not about picking winners and losers.  “This is about making sure that there’s equitable funding for both brick-and-mortar public schools and our cyber schools in Pennsylvania,” he tells Radio PA.

“I believe cyber schools play a very important role in our education system, no doubt about that, but I think we have a responsibility to the taxpayers of Pennsylvania to make sure that their tax dollars are being spent wisely.” 

Among other things, Reese’s legislation would allow school districts to deduct 50% of the cost of extra-curricular activities and 100% of the cost of things like student health, food and library services. These are costs borne by a district’s taxpayers, but services that are not necessarily offered by the cyber schools.    

There are parts of the House GOP package that charter school advocates do support.  For instance, one provision would call for the state to fund charters directly in order to ensure timely payments.  Another would allow for longer charter terms, which would allow the schools to obtain better financing for their own capital projects. 

But Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools Executive Director Bob Fayfich says the so-called cyber funding reforms are arbitrary.  “They’re based not on what the cost is for a high-quality cyber education… but rather an arbitrary percentage of costs associated with the expenses of the district.” 

House Republicans call their bills a “starting point” for discussions with all interested parties. 

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) and Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) have each released statements referring to the Republican package as a positive step toward meaningful charter school reform. 

More than 105,000 Pennsylvania students are currently enrolled in 157-charter schools and 16-cyber charter schools.  The statewide average for non-special education charter school payments is just over $9,400 per student.

New Teacher Evaluations Won’t Apply to Charter Schools

Something is missing from Pennsylvania’s new teacher evaluation law… charter schools.  The new teacher evaluation system approved in the late June budget rush will, for the first time, take student performance into account and provide assistance to educators who fall into the bottom two categories of a new four-tier rating system.

However, during House debate, state Rep. Michael O’Brien (D-Phila.) said he and others were surprised to see that publicly-funded charter schools were ultimately removed from the final product.  “What happens to get in the way of a kum-ba-ya moment?  The devil is in the details,” O’Brien said of the changes to language that previously earned unanimous support.

“We are spending public dollars that are not being accounted for,” lamented Minority Education Chair Jim Roebuck (D-Phila.) during House debate, as he emphasized the fact that charter schools are public schools.

But supporters of proposed charter school reforms say they will contain sufficient accountability and performance measures, which will make the teacher evaluations unnecessary.  Like teacher evaluations, many in Harrisburg expected the charter school reforms to be finalized as a part of a budget season education reform package.  That did not happen.

While time ran out to finalize the charter school reform language, Governor Tom Corbett says he will keep pushing for one of the key items on his education reform agenda.  “We still have more time in September.  You know me, I don’t stop.  I keep coming,” Corbett told reporters during a recent q&a.

Committee to Consider Charter School Reforms this Fall

Jeff Piccola

State Sen. Jeffrey Piccola (R-Dauphin/York)

Pennsylvania’s charter school law was considered one of the nation’s best when it was enacted in 1997, but 14-years later many are calling for reforms.  “A number of states… have surpassed the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in adopting stronger charter laws, all with the goal of making charter schools more viable and a high quality option,” says Senate Education Committee Chairman Jeffrey Piccola (R-Dauphin).  Piccola convened a capitol hearing, Thursday, on his comprehensive, 145-page charter school reform legislation.   

The bill has been two years in the making and has some bipartisan backing.  Minority Chairman Andy Dinniman (D-Chester), one of the bill’s cosponsors, says it insists on transparency and accountability.  “We say, are you fiscally accountable?  Do you provide what you need to provide at the best cost and in the most productive manner?”

SB 904 would – among other things – create an independent commission to oversee and authorize Pennsylvania’s charter schools, allow for direct state funding of charter schools, and create a new task force to investigate funding issues.  Pennsylvania currently has 90,000 students enrolled in charter schools, and 30,000 students on waiting lists.  Most of the students waiting for charter school slots are in Philadelphia.

Daylin Leach

State Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery)

The committee’s charter school reform push isn’t without its critics though.  The Pennsylvania School Boards Association testified that almost all charter school funding is provided by the districts, and SB 904 does not provide any meaningful funding reform.  State Senator Daylin Leach also raised concerns about the impact on the schools that students are leaving.  “It is a net loss to the school, and since the school is just a building, it is a net loss to the other students who are in that school.” 

Sen. Piccola anticipates action on charter school reform this fall.  Other big education issues, on the horizon, include school vouchers and mandate relief.