State Senate passes charter school bill, but without controversial provisions

Posted: October 18, 2012

A bill that would tighten ethics and reporting provisions for charter schools and overhaul special-education funding to favor districts with the most severely disabled special-needs students passed the Pennsylvania Senate by a sizable margin Tuesday.

The bill, which the House is expected to pass Wednesday, was stripped of its most controversial provisions, including one that would have shielded charter school managers from the state's Right to Know law.

The bill also makes it easier for applicants to appeal if they are denied a charter.

And charters would be granted for five years and renewed for 10, up from three years for an initial charter and five for a renewal.

Limits would be set on charter cash reserves, similar to those already in place for school districts. School boards had complained that charters were putting too much money in the bank, not spending it to educate students. Most charters would be paid directly by the state, not by school districts, as is done now. Many charters have said that districts often unduly held up payments.

A commission to consider changes in charter school funding would be established, and a new teacher evaluation system that includes student scores on state tests as a factor in judging teacher performance would be phased in. Absent from the bill is a controversial provision that would have allowed a state board to approve charters. Currently, only local school boards can approve the schools. The Corbett administration has pushed for the creation of a state authorizing board.

A clause excluding charter managers and other charter vendors from the state Right to Know law was also eliminated. Opponents of the Right to Know exception fought the bill's passage in June, when the exception was in the bill.

In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) said: "This is a good bill that includes some important reforms to the law governing public charter schools. . . . It's the product of many months of negotiations, and I'm optimistic that it will be signed into law soon."

Senate Education Committee Minority Leader Andy Dinniman (D., Chester), who supported the bill, called it a good compromise. "No one will be completely happy, but no one will feel that their concerns have been completely ignored," he said. "Everyone gets something."

Dinniman had opposed the Right to Know exception and the proposal for a state approval board.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association opposed the bill, saying in a statement that it treats charters differently from regular public schools and does not solve charter funding problems.

Lawrence Jones, a charter school chief executive and the president of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said: "It's a compromise. Not everybody got exactly what they wanted. But this is a step forward, not only for charter schools but for public education in general."

The special-education part of the legislation would establish three payment levels, based on the severity of students' disabilities. Payments for Tier Three students - the most severely impaired - would be based on actual numbers in districts, not a statewide average.

A legislative commission would fill out the details of the new system, and the legislature would have to approve the recommendations.

All districts would get at least as much as they are now receiving; the new formula would apply to increases above current levels.


Contact Dan Hardy at 601-313-8134 or dhardy@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @DanInq.

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