Editorial: Constitution reform left on the desk by legislators | Opinion

The dust has settled on the state budget adopted at the end of June , and school districts have adjusted their local budgets accordingly. While legislators and Gov. Tom Wolf pat themselves on the back for increasing funding to public schools, property owners throughout the region have in their hands tax bills that represent an onerous burden for many.

The $40.8 billion state budget included a $416 million boost in funding to schools, including $100 million in “LevelUp” funding for districts in financially struggling areas, which included Reading, Norristown, Pottstown,and Coatesville. The increases were appreciated in those financially-strapped districts, but as officials throughout the region noted, a bit of cash doesn’t solve the systemic problems that hold back Pennsylvania schools.

Among the issues near the top of that list is the antiquated charter school law in Pennsylvania which has not been updated in 24 years. Charter reform measures proposed in February by Wolf and supported by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association had gained support of 407 of the state’s 500 districts, including nearly every district in southeastern Pennsylvania.

Wolf called failing to tackle charter reform a missed opportunity. “I won’t rest until we fix the broken charter school law to save nearly $400 million a year by making charter school companies focus on education rather than maximizing profits at taxpayers’ expense,” he said in signing the state budget June 30.

Charter reform proponents had pinned hopes on state Rep. Joe Ciresi’s House Bill 272. The Montgomery County Democrat’s proposal gained more than seventy bipartisan cosponsors and was believed to have a fair chance of coming to a vote in the legislature. But as with earlier proposals, it failed to get the leadership backing to come to a vote.

Charter school lobbyists and advocates have spread the message that reform would cripple the opportunity for families to choose alternatives to the schools where they live — an argument popular during a pandemic that closed schools and disrupted learning.

Those who favor reform counter that the proposals are intended to put charters on a level playing field with district schools with transparency and accountability to state standards. 

The proposed reforms would require charter school trustees and administrators to live by the same financial and ethical reporting standards public school board members and school district officials live up to, including open meetings and open records requirements.

The reforms are also meant to control the fee structure and benefit taxpayers by:

• requiring a statewide, data-driven cyber charter school tuition rate to make sure all taxpayers are getting the same results for the same dollars and ending the wide disparity in rates affecting tuition in neighboring districts,

• requiring charter schools to use the Special Education Fair Funding Formula public schools use to ensure students in need are getting the results they deserve and preventing huge tax rate increases on homeowners in districts serving rapidly growing populations of students with special needs, and

• requiring charter schools to carry enough insurance to take care of kids and families if the charter closes or the parent company goes out of business.

Charter schools which do not have oversight from the state Department of Education need a structure of accountability for meeting educational standards, reformers say.

HB 272 proposes creating a state grading system for charters to allow high-performing schools even more self-determination while focusing attention on low-performing schools to better serve children.

It also calls for stopping the creation of new cyber charter schools until the existing schools improve performance — right now three out of every four charter schools rank in the bottom five percent of schools statewide — and charges PDE with creating enrollment and performance standards.

Finance directors at local school districts have repeatedly illustrated the increasing impact payments to public charter schools have on local budgets. According to Ciresi, twenty cents of every dollar paid in property tax this year will go to charter schools. Fourteen cyber charter schools are collecting more than a half-billion dollars in tax money.

State legislators left this important issue on the table when they adjourned for the summer at the end of June.

The tax bills due August 31 reflect that failure: Homeowners are paying the price.