Pa. House skips vote on charter-school bill

Posted: October 19, 2012

The clock ran out on the Pennsylvania General Assembly's two-year legislative session Wednesday with a big surprise: It failed to pass changes in charter-school law that had been supported by the Corbett administration and the Senate and House leadership.

The bill had a long list of amendments, including bringing charters under state ethics laws, requiring annual audits, standardizing reporting, and creating a commission to propose funding changes. It had passed the Senate on Tuesday with bipartisan support and by a ratio of more than 2-1.

The measure, however, did not even come to a vote in the House. Some House Republicans and many House Democrats said they felt the bill tilted the playing field toward charters - and away from public schools - and did not immediately address some pressing funding issues.

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) said Thursday that funding for cyber charters, which currently receive the same amount of money as other charters but do not have many of the same expenses, was a particular concern.

"I think there has to be choice for families, for kids," he said. "But I also think there has to be fairness in how the funding works, particularly for cyber charters."

Rep. Paul Clymer (R., Bucks), chairman of the House Education Committee, said many items in the proposal had broad support, from ethics provisions to setting academic standards.

But members "felt there were ways in which the bill was more favorable to the charters and cyber charters than to [traditional] public schools," he said, adding, "There was just not a good feeling."

In particular, Clymer said, legislators were concerned that the commission to propose charter funding changes "was too stacked with pro-charter people."

The bill's supporters were left reeling.

"I was shocked and frustrated," said Lawrence Jones, president of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools. "We were looking at a bill that was going to increase accountability so that the interests of children could be served."

Among the proposal's critics was Mark Miller, vice president of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and a Bucks County school board member. The bill, he said, "was presented as charter reform, but it wasn't. It was a dismantling of public education. . . . The governor wanted this, but the legislature decided it was not in the interests of the children of Pennsylvania."

State Education Department spokesman Tim Eller said in an e-mail: "The Administration is disappointed the Legislature could not get this bill across the finish line. This legislation would have brought about much-needed reforms to Pennsylvania's charter school law. We look forward to restarting these discussions when the new session begins in January."

Down the drain along with the charter changes was a state special-education funding overhaul that had garnered near-unanimous support. The charter law changes were inserted into the special-education legislation in late June, so that too failed to come up for a vote.

The special-education provisions would have directed more money to children with the most severe disabilities and districts with the highest numbers of those students.

"That's the biggest loss," said Rep. Mike Sturla (D., Lancaster), who opposed many charter portions of the bill but strongly backed the special-education changes. "This was a bill that wouldn't have cost taxpayers anything more [for special education] but would have made sure that the money went where it was needed the most."


Contact Dan Hardy

at 610-313-8134 or dhardy@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @DanInq.

Inquirer staff writer Angela Couloumbis contributed to this article.

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