Senate passes measure, but leaders say no time left for House to act
Senate Bill 1115 — which included wide-ranging charter school and special education reforms —effectively died on the floor of the Pennsylvania Legislature last Tuesday when the State Senate approved the bill but left little time for the House of Representatives to vote on it the following day. House Speaker Sam Smith said that there was simply not enough time to act on the complicated bill.
State senators passed SB 1115 with a 33-16 majority, and Senator Anthony Williams is the lone locally-serving senator to vote in favor of the bill. Notable nay votes came from Senators Lawrence M. Farnese Jr., Vincent Hughes, Shirley M. Kitchen, Michael J. Stack, Christine M. Tartaglione and LeAnna M. Washington.
And considering that state lawmakers will probably not take up any bills during the post-election period, it could mean a permanent shelving of the bill and its elements. State Senate Majority Whip Pat Browne introduced SB 1115, which was initially buttressed by early bipartisan support.
According to the Education Law Center, the legislation would have addressed problems with the state systems for funding and accountability of special education for students with disabilities. Prior to last Tuesday’s inaction by the House, the Senate Education and Appropriations Committee last spring twice unanimously passed SB 1115.
SB 1115 would have amended the Public School Code of 1949 and also allowed for the establishment of a Special Education Funding Commission, along with proving funds for special education student achievement. SB 1115 would have also spurred charter school funding reforms, which would have drastically altered the method in which the state funds charter schools. The bill would also bring into line the commonwealth’s reimbursements to statewide school districts, which presently subsidizes the charter school system.
In a recent report by Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner, in relation to the nationwide average, Pennsylvania spends about $3,000 more per pupil to educate students in traditional brick-and-mortar schools, while the commonwealth spends more than $3,500 to educate children in charter and cyber charter schools. Without naming any specific bills or legislative efforts, Wagner’s report shows that the state could save up to $315 million if it undertook several charter school funding reforms.
The School District of Philadelphia alone pays roughly $838 million to fund charter schools in the district, a major point of contention as the district deals with a budget gap approaching $300 million. The failure of SB 1115 has caused heated contentions between parties on both sides of the issue, and has even caused similar-minded education organizations to butt heads on the legislation.
StudentsFirst Pennsylvania — the statewide effort of the national educational non-profit StudentsFirst with more than 1 million members that pursues education reforms across the board, blamed the bill’s failure on legislators kowtowing to a strong statewide lobbying effort.
“Last [Tuesday], the Pennsylvania House of Representatives failed to take up SB 1115, effectively killing a bill that, while not perfect, would have taken important steps to improve the quality of school choices for parents. Unfortunately, legislators caved to pressure from special interests that put the interest of children last,” said StudentsFirst Pennsylvania State Director Ashley DeMauro. “Although this session of the Pennsylvania General Assembly has come to an end, we must build on our progress and use this as an opportunity to continue to work with the governor’s administration and Pennsylvania legislators to craft a comprehensive measure that includes an accountability system with better authorizing and monitoring structures that allows high-performing charters to continue to do what works.”
Officials with the American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania — whose ideology mostly matches that of StudentsFirst Pennsylvania — believes the legislators’ failure to move on SB 1115 was a wise and prudent decision, and one that showed a certain toughness by the state’s lawmakers.
“The Pennsylvania House adjourned without taking up SB 1115, which was amended to include ill-advised charter school ‘reforms’ that would have removed charter school authority and oversight from parents, local taxpayers and school boards and given it to the state Department of Education. Proponents of the charter amendments, which were tacked onto a special education funding bill with broad and bipartisan support, did not have enough votes to pass SB 1115,” said AFT President Ted Kirsch. “It took courage and wisdom for House members to let SB 1115 die without action at the end of the two-year session. Charter reform is overdue, but giving the Pennsylvania Department of Education the authority to hold, amend, and renew charters for multiple charter school organizations would have done an end-run around local communities.
“The playing field between district, charter and cyber charter schools, academically and fiscally, must be leveled,” Kirsch continued. “But SB 1115’s amendments were the wrong way to do it. AFTPA members thank House members for ensuring that the important issues around charter school governance will have a chance to be considered openly, carefully and with full public input in the future.”
Browne was travelling and unavailable for comment as of Tribune deadline. Officials with the School District of Philadelphia haven’t had proper time to review the decision regarding SB 1115 and withheld comment until they do so.
Data provided by non-profit organization Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools show that there are 105,056 Pennsylvanian students enrolled in charter schools, representing 6 percent of the entire statewide school-going population; it also showed that more than 44,000 students are on charter school wait lists and that a full quarter of School District of Philadelphia students attend charter schools.
PCPCS also sided with StudentsFirst in blasting the inaction, releasing a scathing statement that also pinned SB 1115’s failure on a strong special-interest lobbying effort.
“The Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools is incredibly disappointed that the House of Representatives have chosen to bow to special interest groups over the well-being of the children of this state. In failing to pass SB 1115, the House rejected three years of work by people who have been sincerely and passionately dedicated to crafting legislation that increases accountability for charter schools and provides better quality educational options for our children,” the statement read in part. “This lack of action by the House continues to deny hope to our most vulnerable children, is a stand against higher standards and accountability, keeps charter legislation in Pennsylvania 15 years behind the best educational practices and is a national embarrassment for the Commonwealth.
“Why this happened is a good civics lesson for our children. At the last minute, all of the work to provide a more accountable and transparent education system was destroyed by misinformation and intimidation by organizations that represent the entrenched special interests in the educational monopoly.”