On Wednesday, October 18th, mostly along party lines, the PA House passed an amended School Code with significant attacks on public education buried deep in the 75-page bill. The School Code is an omnibus bill, a single document that requires a single vote, but packages together a wide variety of different measures, many of which could not pass on their own.
The School Code will now go to the Senate, which returns to Harrisburg on Monday, October 23rd. The Senate may vote on the School Code as is, it may amend the School Code, or it may decide to take no action. The legislature does not need to pass a School Code in order to enact the 2017-2018 budget.
The School Code bill (HB 178) provides a $10 million increase in Educational Improvement Tax Credits (EITC) for scholarship organizations that provide taxpayer-funded tuition subsidies to affluent families that send their children to private/religious schools. This program is NOT designed to provide tuition assistance to poor families. Children from a family of 4 earning $106K/year are eligible to receive scholarships. The family income limit increases by $15,270 for each additional family member. The proposed increase in HB 178 would bring total taxpayer-funded private/religious school tuition subsidies to $135 million/year. In a year when the legislature has proposed borrowing $1.5 billion to pay for its obligations and when public schools throughout PA cannot provide students with the most basic resources they need, it is outrageous that additional funding for private school subsidies is a priority for lawmakers. Learn more about the EITC program and the complete lack of fiscal or academic accountability for $125 million/year in EITC funding.
The School Code bill allows charter schools to consolidate into a Multiple Charter School Organization (MCSO) without providing clear governance guidelines for the MCSO and school districts that have authorized charter schools (and local taxpayers who will pay every dollar of charter school tuition for schools in an MCSO). An MCSO would be a network of charter schools that would operate like school district without any geographical restrictions.
- It specifies that as long as one charter school in an MCSO satisfies minimal performance requirements, an unlimited number of charter schools that fail to meet ANY performance standards may be consolidated into the MCSO.
- It does not specify that MSCOs are subject to the same open meetings and open records laws as individual charter schools.
- It contains no process for revoking an MCSO.
- It removes the Secretary of Education from the Charter School Appeal Board when it is considering MCSO applications. This could tilt the makeup of the charter appeal board so that it would be more pro-charter. It also creates a board with six members, which could lead to a tie in votes.
- It creates a compressed time frame of just 45 days after receipt of the application for the approval of MCSOs by PDE and by local school boards. Automatic approval of the MCSO after 45 days will create a loophole for MCSOs to form without approval.
The School Code Bill also includes language that makes it easier to lay off teachers by including “economic reasons” as reason to cut teachers. It is deeply disappointing that many members of this legislature are focused on finding new ways to enable teacher layoffs instead of ensuring that schools have enough state funding to keep quality teachers that our children need in their classrooms.
When lawmakers are unable to pass education-related legislation through the regular process, they sneak it into the School Code bill in the hopes that their constituents are too disengaged to notice.