Gov. Wolf Stresses Need for Stronger Charter School Accountability

October 01, 2019

Logan Township, PA – Governor Tom Wolf visited Logan Elementary School in the Altoona Area School District today to discuss his three-part plan to fix Pennsylvania’s outdated and flawed charter school law. The governor also announced the Department of Education has reached an agreement with Achieving Community Transformation Academy, the state’s lowest performing cyber charter school, for it to close by the end of December.

“Pennsylvania’s charter school law is the worst in the nation and is failing students, teachers, school districts and taxpayers,” said Gov. Wolf. “There are high-quality charter schools, but some of them, especially some cyber charter schools, are underperforming. We must ensure that charter school students are getting a quality education they need and that charter schools are accountable to parents and taxpayers.”

The annual cost of charter schools has skyrocketed to $1.8 billion, but the schools have little public oversight and no publicly elected school board. Adding to the limited accountability, for-profit companies that manage many charter schools are not required to have independent financial audits. The lack of accountability combined with rising costs is draining funding from traditional public schools and forcing school districts to raise property taxes.

“My commonsense plan preserves school choice while holding charters to the same standards as traditional neighborhood public schools, protects taxpayers, and strengthens education,” said Gov. Wolf. “We must ensure that all students get the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in life. It’s important to the future of all children and their communities.”

A Stanford University report released in June found overwhelmingly negative results from Pennsylvania’s cyber schools and urged reform. Eleven of the 15 cyber schools in the state are on the Department of Education’s (PDE) improvement plan for low performing schools. PDE, which authorizes cyber charter schools, and school districts, which authorize brick-and-mortar charter schools, need stronger tools to hold other low performing charter schools accountable.

With a three-part plan, the governor is taking executive action, overhauling regulations, and will propose legislation to comprehensively reform the Charter School Law. At the governor’s direction, PDE last month began a fee-for-service model to recoup the costs of thousands of hours of staff time incurred from implementing the Charter School Law.

Overhauling Regulations
The Department of Education is also developing new regulations for charter schools. The regulations will include:

• Providing school districts with the tools to hold charter schools accountable to provide a quality education.
• Increasing transparency of charter school admission and enrollment policies to prevent discrimination.
• Holding charter schools and the for-profit management companies to the same transparency standards as public schools.
• Establishing the same ethical standards for charter school Boards of Trustees and management companies that apply to public schools.
• Requiring regular financial audits and public contract bidding.
• Establishing requirements for charters to document costs to prevent school districts and taxpayers from being overcharged.

Charter School Accountability Legislation
The governor will propose comprehensive legislation to improve charter school accountability that would:

• Establish performance standards that hold charter schools accountable for the educational outcomes of students and a moratorium on new cyber charter schools.
• Cap student enrollment in low performing cyber charter schools until outcomes improve.
• Require charter management companies be subject to the Right to Know Law, State Ethics Act, and post employee salaries on a public website, similar to requirements already in place for public school districts.
• Create fair, predictable, and equitable funding for school districts, including in the areas of special education funding and cyber charter tuition payments.

“Altoona’s students represent the future of this region and their academic success is the backbone of the local economy,” said Charles Prijatelj, superintendent, Altoona Area School District. “Since studies show many cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania are underperforming, it doesn’t make sense for district taxpayers to pay 400 percent more for students to attend a cyber charter school when students in the district’s own cyber academy are thriving.”

“Despite cyber schools costing Greater Johnstown School District taxpayers $2.3 million last year, the school board has zero oversight of the spending,” said Amy Arcurio, superintendent, Greater Johnstown School District. “By improving accountability, we could better control costs and invest the savings in hiring more elementary teachers to lower class sizes and better prepare students in our neighborhoods to get a good education, be college or career ready and thrive in our community.”

“In 2018-19, the Penns Valley Area School District spent over 10 percent of our local real estate tax money for approximately 80 charter students comprising 5.2 percent of our student population,” said Brian Griffith, superintendent, Penns Valley Area School District. “We could welcome all 80 charter school students back into our schools at no additional cost. Charter school tuition creates an incredibly inefficient system.”

Many education community leaders are supporting the governor’s charter school accountability plan including the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, Education Voters of Pennsylvania, Research for Action, American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania State Education Association, as well as numerous superintendents and school board members.

Comments about the proposed charter school regulations can be submitted to: Office of the Secretary, 333 Market Street, 10th Floor, Harrisburg, PA 17126.

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