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November 19, 2013 | By | Posted in Legislature

Divisive charter school reform bill headed toward vote in PA

CHARTER SCHOOLS: The possibility of a vote this week on S.B. 1085 has renewed enthusiasm for charter school reform in Pennsylvania.

By Maura Pennington | Watchdog.org

PHILADELPHIA — A vote in the state Senate this week could decide the fate of public charter schools in Pennsylvania.

A broad coalition of supporters is optimistic about the passage of S.B. 1085, which would be the first successful legislation to reform the authorization, accountability and financing of charter schools since their creation in the state more than a decade ago.

But there is plenty of opposition too.  The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has referred to the bill as “A Bad Deal For Public Education” in a plea to constituents to stop its progress.

A main point of contention between supporters of the Senate bill and opponents is a provision for independent authorizing entities, such as universities.

Now, school districts are the only authorities that control the establishment, renewal and termination of charters in their jurisdictions. In the case of Philadelphia, this has allowed for a moratorium on new charters despite an increase in demand.

Of the 174 brick-and-mortar charter schools in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia has 86, with 55,000 students. Additionally, tens of thousands of children are on waiting lists.

Even as students flock to the charters, the School District of Philadelphia sees the nontraditional public schools as a competitor for resources in the midst of a multi-million-dollar budget crisis.

In March, the district announced it would not recommend the expansion of charters this year. Superintendent William Hite said it would be “irresponsible” to promote the growth of alternative, open-enrollment, free schools.

“Given our dire financial prospects, we must ask for shared sacrifices from our partners,” Hite said.

Supporters of S.B. 1085 argue the Philadelphia school district has never been fully invested in charter schools. With the introduction of independent university authorizers, the district has an opportunity to better develop the public charter school system, they say.

“You will never have a strong charter sector in a state unless you have a strong authorizer,” says Bob Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition for Public Charter Schools.

A coalition of organizations came forward in the past week to release a position paper in support of the bill, including PCPCS; StudentsFirst, a grassroots movement led by Michelle Rhee; The Black Alliance for Education Options; PennCAN, part of 50CAN, a nationwide campaign to increase access to education opportunities; and Philadelphia Charters for Excellence, an alliance of high-performing public charter schools.

Yet opponents of S.B. 1085, such as the PFT, want to kill the bill for permitting “unrestricted expansion of charter schools in Pennsylvania.”

By allowing institutions of higher education to authorize and supervise new charters, the PFT said S.B. 1085 “would strip control from taxpayers and locally elected school boards.”

Three previous attempts at charter school reform have failed, and a bill sits in committee in the state House. However, the possibility of a Senate vote this week on S.B. 1085 has renewed enthusiasm for the issue.

“There are 40,000 students waiting out there to go to a school of good choice,” said Naomi Booker, president of PCE.

The bill’s main sponsors are Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster, and Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia.

Contact Maura Pennington at mpennington@watchdog.org and follow her on Twitter @whatsthefracas.

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Eric Boehm is a reporter for PA Independent. He can be reached at Eric@PAIndependent.com or at (717) 350-0963.

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