HB 97: Charter Reform that is Not Worth the 20-Year Wait

UPDATE: On April 25th,  the PA House passed HB 97 by a vote of 108-84

It has been 20 years since the law that established charter schools in PA was enacted. Significant flaws in this charter school law have surfaced over the past two decades and legislators are now making what appears to be a serious effort to improve it.

On Tuesday, April 18th, the House Education Committee will begin fast-tracking HB 97, comprehensive charter school reform legislation. Unfortunately, HB 97 is a tremendous disappointment.

HB 97 increases transparency and holds charter schools to similar standards as other publicly funded entities. These are important and necessary changes to the law. Unfortunately, however, these changes aren’t enough to make HB 97 a bill lawmakers should support in its current form.

Lawmakers must substantially change HB 97 in order to address critical funding and academic performance issues, ensure that charters will serve all students equitably, and  ensure that communities are able to plan and exercise appropriate fiscal and academic oversight over their public education system(s).

HB 97 fails to address critical funding problems with the current law.

  • HB 97 creates an unwieldy commission that is tasked with too many issues to have a realistic chance of thoughtfully and adequately addressing the critical issue of charter school funding.
    • RECOMMENDED CHANGE: Lawmakers must take the commission out of HB 97 and instead support a bipartisan, bicameral Charter School Funding Commission that mirrors the Special Education and Basic Education Funding Commissions and will focus only on charter school funding issues.
  • HB 97 fails to ensure that charter school funding for students with disabilities will be fixed.
    • RECOMMENDED CHANGE: A Charter School Funding Commission must be tasked with creating a system that removes the financial incentive for charter schools to enroll only those students with disabilities who require low-cost services. It must also eliminate more than $100 million in mandated overpayments to charters for students with disabilities and more closely match payments to charters with the actual cost of providing services to students.

HB 97 does not address issues of education quality in charter schools or allow school districts to hold charters accountable if they fail to provide students with a quality education.

  • HB 97 does not address cyber charter school quality. Over the course of nearly two decades and after receiving billions of taxpayer dollars, cyber schools have consistently demonstrated they are incapable of meeting minimal academic performance standards set for public schools in PA.
    • RECOMMENDED CHANGE: The legislature must form a task force to address academic performance issues in cyber charter schools to ensure that these schools will provide students with a quality education.
  • HB 97 creates separate performance standards for charter schools and district schools, allowing charter schools to play by different rules than district schools. This is unacceptable. Charter schools are taxpayer-funded public schools that must be held to the same academic performance standards as district schools. Creating separate performance standards for charters prevents parents and taxpayers from knowing if charters are performing better or worse than their district schools.
    • RECOMMENDED CHANGE: Lawmakers must remove all language about a separate performance matrix for charters schools from HB 97, hold charter schools to the same academic standards as other public schools, and include them in the statewide system of academic accountability that applies to district schools.
  • HB 97 allows for different evaluation systems for charter and district school teachers, creating a system where charter and district teachers are held to different standards of accountability.
    • RECOMMENDED CHANGE: HB 97 must require that charter school teachers are held to the same standards and evaluated by the same system as district public school teachers.
  • HB 97 allows charters and cyber charters that fail to meet academic quality benchmarks to be renewed for five years by a school board or the Charter Appeal Board, significantly reducing local control and accountability for academic quality. In addition, this bill allows charters that meet a yet-to-be-determined level of performance to receive a 10-year charter. If the performance of a charter school with a 10-year charter declines, school districts are prohibited from taking any action until the 6th year of the renewal period. The longer the term of a charter, the longer it takes for true accountability for charter school performance.
    • RECOMMENDED CHANGE: HB 97 must ensure that failing charter schools can be shut down based on their academic performance and other measures, including financial mismanagement and compliance with laws. It must also allow authorizers to conduct periodic, comprehensive reviews of charters that fail to meet academic standards.

HB 97 fails to ensure that charters will equitably serve all students and does not address student “push out” in charters.

  • HB 97 fails to ensure charters will equitably serve the most vulnerable students in their communities, including those who are experiencing homelessness, living in foster care, and returning from juvenile justice placement.
    • RECOMMENDED CHANGE: HB 97 should include language that requires charters to equitably enroll the most at-risk students in their communities. The law must  also explicitly allow districts to hold charter schools accountable for failing to effectively serve at-risk student populations or for “pushing out” students through the use of excessively harsh discipline policies.

After 20 years, Pennsylvanians deserve charter school reform that is worth the wait. HB 97 is just beginning the legislative process and there will be many opportunities for legislators to improve this bill.

Click HERE for our 1-pager on HB 97.