There's a game-changer on the horizon, a piece of legislation rumbling through the halls of Harrisburg that, if passed, promises to alter forever the landscape of public education in Pennsylvania.

It's called Senate Bill 1085, referred to by many as, "The Charter Reform Bill."

Proponents say it will raise the standards by which charters are opened and evaluated, while ensuring the creation of more high-quality educational options for all Pennsylvania's students.

Opponents say it will create a "wild, wild west" scenario in which charters be able to "grow unfettered," while bringing about the "death knell" of traditional public education.

The bill has passed a key Senate committee, but the timing of a full Senate vote is unclear.

Of the major provisions of the bill, the most contentious debate surrounds its creation of "university authorizers." This would allow institutes of higher education to authorize and oversee new charter schools without the input of local school districts.

To build a charter

Right now, when a group wants to open a bricks-and-mortar charter school in Pennsylvania, it must first win approval from the local school district.

In charter-law-speak, the local school district is the "authorizer."

To some, this makes sense. Local school districts need to be able to predict how many students they're going to be responsible for educating in order to set a financial plan and appropriately staff their schools. The money colleges would get to run charters would be taken out of the budgets of the students' home school districts.

But to others, this system of authorization seems a conflict of interest.

"In most cases the district sees the charter schools as competitors, and they then have absolute control over whether those competitors exist or whether they don't," said Robert Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.

His coalition advocates for the bill's passage, calling the the existing charter law, written in 1997, "outdated and antiquated."

Proponents like Fayfich say that school districts in Pennsylvania have never been great authorizers (and thus have authorized some poor-performing schools) in part because they haven't appropriately staffed their charter offices.

In Washington D.C., a governing board separate from the D.C. school district oversees charter growth. There, 26 staffers (including two communications officers) oversee 60 charter schools.

In the Philadelphia School District, which oversees 86 charters, the same work is done by seven staffers.

Colleges and universities who have the desire to improve public education would authorize and oversee charters in a much more robust and fair-minded way, proponents say.

As written, the bill would allow any college or university with at least 2,000 students to apply to become an authorizer. If accepted, it could authorize an unlimited amount of charter schools within its home district.

If the college or university offers a bachelor's degree in education, it could authorize an unlimited amount of charters anywhere in its home county.

If the college or university offers a doctorate degree in education, it could authorize an unlimited amount of charters anywhere in the state.

All college or university authorizers would need to have their "primary campus and operation" within the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

All told, the bill would potentially create 100 new authorizing bodies, 15 being community colleges, dozens being religiously affiliated.

Skin in the game

But just because a college is in the business of post-secondary education, does that mean it should be entrusted with the state's constitutional mandate to provide a "thorough and efficient" education for all of Pennsylvania's students?

Opponents of this bill shout a loud and clear 'no.'

"Presumably, any college or university that has absolutely no experience in running K-12 education could now authorize a new charter school," said David Lapp, staff attorney at the Education Law Center's Philadelphia office.

To him, the scary thing is that universities could authorize new schools without having any financial "skin in the game."

The school budgets that would lose resources to pay for a college's charter startup already are very tight, he says.

"Many of us have seen that as the potential death knell of school districts across the commonwealth who are really struggling, particularly right now," said Lapp.

He says the bill seems particularly designed to "kill [the school district of] Philadelphia," which has put a moratorium new charter expansion in order to slow the hemorrhaging of its students to charter schools.

The Senate bill would not only put an end to the moratorium, but forbid the district to impose enrollment caps on the city's already-existing charters.

The Philadelphia School District agrees this bill would be devastating to its future and put its finances in "jeopardy."

"It will basically put a hole in [our] budget," said district spokesman Fernando Gallard.

He argued that allowing authorizers who aren't privy to the district's financial picture to make decisions about how the district's money is spent would make it "close to impossible" for the district to create a budget that would adequately serve the city's students.

"If we are putting together a budget for a fiscal year that we believe is going to cost us 'x' amount, and then someone else comes in and says, 'Well, no, we believe that the best use of those dollars is 'over here'...We have already hired employees. We have students in school," Gallard said. "No institution can survive that way."

To the tune of more than $700 million a year, the Philadelphia school district spends 30 percent of its  budget on educating students in charter schools.

State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Philadelphia) said S.B. 1085 needs to be assessed in conjunction with Republican governor Tom Corbett's cuts to education line-items in the state's budget.

"They've created an environment for failure," Hughes said. "You defund the school district, and now folks want to come in a pick the meat off the carcass."

Supply and demand

State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D., Philadelphia), who co-sponsors the legislation with lead sponsor Lloyd Smucker (R., Lancaster), says the idea that S.B.1085 will "kill Philadelphia" is a gross overreaction.

"No one's going to go willy-nilly spending money that's not available," said Williams.

Refering to preliminary talks with the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, and Temple University, Williams said that parties that have "expressed interest in" the university authorizer part of the bill will "work with the school district to help make Philly schools better."

Those universities declined to comment for this story.

Advocates of the bill say that districts who oppose it are putting their own financial interests ahead of the desires of families.

In the past five years, enrollment in the Philadelphia school district's traditional schools has decreased by 29,348 students – from 160,811 students in 2009 to 131,463 this year.

In roughly the same time period, students enrolled in the city's bricks-and-mortar charters rose by 28,648 students – from 31,527 students in 2008 to 60,175 this year. Upwards of 5,000 students in Philadelphia attend cyber charter schools.

"Parents, more than anyone else in this education debate, are purest in their motivation, and their only motivation is to do what's best for their child," said Robert Fayfich of PCPCS.

Proponents like Fayfich and Williams point to the recent CREDO study done by Stanford University which found that the states with the best-performing charter schools have a diversity of authorizer-types. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have independent chartering authorities, in addition to the state or local boards.

Although some worry that colleges and universities may authorize a slate of "bad" charter schools, proponents say those fears are overblown.

"They'd lose a lot more 'PR' brand if they're authorizing a low-quality portfolio of schools," said Jonathan Cetel, executive director of the reform-advocacy group PennCAN. "They're going to enter this work because they want to open up high quality schools."

Williams envisions the university authorizer model as one of "partnership, not autocracy." So to him the choice is simple: If the district is going to be paying for charter schools, why not allow them to be represented by some of the best learning institutions in the region?

Where university authorization is already in place, he said, "they've raised the grade and quality of the charters."   

Both Williams and Cetel pointed to New York State as a model of great university authorization, where 9-percent of charters up for renewal are voted for closure.

But there are several key differences between what's being proposed in Pennsylvania and what's already in place in New York. There, the only university authorizer is SUNY, New York's State University System.

Pedro Noguera, professor of education at NYU, resigned last year from SUNY's authorizing board because he felt the New York state legislature was "clearly allowing charters to be used to undermine public schools."

Despite his departure, he says the SUNY model is one of the best in the nation and one that could serve as a blueprint for Pennsylvania.

But S.B. 1085, as written, he says, "is far too loose."

"You already have lots of colleges with low academic standards," said Noguera, "so why would you put them in the business of authorizing charter schools?"

ELC's David Lapp echoed that idea.

"If I'm a bad charter operator, now my chances [of being authorized] are better," he said. "I'm going to go to the easiest place that I possibly can go. I might go to the school district, but if they're too restrictive, then I'm going to go to the university and try my application there."

In the last two years, Philadelphia's School Reform Commission has voted to close four charter schools, but all continue to operate, a fact district spokesman Gallard attributed to the closure process for Pennsylvania charters being "too cumbersome."

Gallard said the district is "looking into" what he called another slate of "needed" closures.

New metrics

Proponents of the bill say that quality concerns will be addressed by the provision in the bill which creates a new set of standardized metrics by which all charters would be authorized, overseen, and, if necessary, closed.

The exact nature of these metrics would still need to be created by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Criteria would include: performance on standardized tests, graduation rates, attrition rates, attendance, school safety, and parent satisfaction.

Ideally, proponents say, working from these standards, independent university authorizers will have the desire and the resources to oversee charters in ways that districts haven't in the past.

"When you have a good authorizer," said PennCAN's Cetel, "they're looking at your annual report every year, and if something's not going well, they have the ability to revoke."

Equity

All roads in this debate eventually lead back to the fundamental question of equity.

Even if, as proponents predict, colleges only stick with charters that perform well, might that still create a bleaker picture for Pennsylvania's most vulnerable students –  such as special-needs students and English language learners?  

The bill's critics say such students often can't get into charters, and would be left to languish in struggling schools with shrinking resources.

"It's helping a few at the harm of the whole," said Lapp. "Many of us would say that's great to increase opportunities for students, but that should be accompanied by insurances that the schools that we have–the school districts that we have–are adequately funded and adequately resourced to provide better education themselves."

The path from here

S.B. 1085 passed out of the Senate appropriations comittee on a near party-line vote on Nov. 18. There's no timetable for a vote of the full Senate. The legislature takes its winter break on Dec. 18 and doesn't return until the New Year.

Similar legislation has been proposed for the last three years without gaining enough votes for approval. The House of Representatives passed its own version of a charter reform bill, sans university authorizer provisions, in September.

Below is a breakdown of some of the key provisions of the Senate bill, the first six of which are opposed by the Philadelphia school district:

  • Institutes of higher education would be able to authorize and oversee new charter schools without the permission of local school districts. (Colleges and universities could begin applying to become authorizers on July 1, 2015).
  • School districts would be disallowed from implementing enrollment caps on charter schools.
  • School districts that don't make payments to charter schools will have funds deducted by the state department of education. Philadelphia's School Reform Commission, which currently has assumed the authority to suspend this provision, would be stripped of that right.
  • The Philadelphia school district cannot suspend (as it has done) the provison which compels it to hear all new charter school applications.
  • A charter operator that runs two or more charter schools (Mastery, KIPP, Universal etc...) could become a "multiple charter school organization," whose growth and evaluation would become the purview of the state department of education, not the local school district.
  • Charter operators would have the "right-of-first-refusal" to buy or lease vacant district property at or below fair market value.
  • A new set of standardized metrics would be created by which charter schools would be authorized and overseen, and, if necessary, closed. The exact nature of these metrics would still need to be created by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Criteria would include: performance on standardized tests, graduation rates, attrition rates, attendance, school safety, and parent satisfaction.
  • The renewal period for charter schools that meet academic benchmarks would be extended from five years to 10. Schools not meeting academic benchmarks would continue to be subjected to a five-year renewal.
  • Cyber charters would accept an 5 percent cut to their funding streams, saving local school districts money.
  • Charter schools would be limited in the size of the fund balance they could retain. Leftover funds would be returned to the local school district.
  • School districts would be able to deduct 30 percent of the costs they incur in reimbursing charter schools for teacher pension plans. The state will deduct 50 percent of the costs it incurs for the same expenditure. Currently, neither the state nor local districts can make any deductions.
  • A state advisory panel would be created to analyze the method by which brick-and-mortar charter schools receive funding. The panel would not explore the impact of charter growth on school districts.

An earlier version of this story included less up-to-date enrollment data for the city's bricks-and-mortar charter schools.

Following initial publication, Michael Masch–former Pennsylvania Budget Secretary, Philadelphia School District CFO, and SRC member–wrote to make a key distinction about the difference between what's proposed in S.B. 1085 and the existing charter school system in Washington D.C. 

He wrote:

"There is a separate charter authorizing board in D.C., and they have to live within a budget–just like the DC school district–and they have to make a separate case for funding.  In Philly, under current state law – and still under SB 1085 – charters can be created without anyone having to show that there is enough money to operate them. Once authorized, charters simply have a right to a specific amount of funding per student, and that money is taken from the overall budget of the district in which the charter is located...That's not how things work in D.C."