Although it mirrors Senate Bill 1115 in that it alters the Public School Code, House Bill 2661 would reform and add additional checks to the funding of charter and cyber-charter schools.
Introduced last week by State Rep. James Roebuck and buoyed by bipartisan support throughout the state, HB 2661 proposes several changes, including limiting unassigned balances on the accounting books of charter and cyber-charter schools, essentially limiting these schools’ reserve funds; eliminating the so-called pension “double dip” loophole; lowering the per-student funding for special-needs students; requiring annual audits by the Department of Education and finally, it would increase the level of transparency, particularly as it relates to contractors that provide educational, administrative and management services.
“If we are overfunding some chart and cyber-charter schools, as appears to be the case, that money needs to be returned to the school districts this year, not held until 2013–14 or later. All of these funding accountability measures will provide financial relief to school districts from specific charter school funding mandates places on school districts,” Roebuck said at HB 2661’s announcement. “These saving can then be used by school districts and the state to restore funding to public school and keep property taxes from rising.”
According to Roebuck, his four initiatives were not included in the recent flurry of charter/cyber-charter reforms passed by both the House and Senate.
School District of Philadelphia Spokesman Fernando Gallard said district officials, including the School Reform Commission, haven’t had a chance to review Roebuck’s bill, but charter funding has long been a problem for the district, as Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen has looked to address the issue, through both the five-year transformation blueprint and the accompanying five-year financial plan.
According to the district’s FY 2012–3012 budget, the district’s funding of charters and cyber-charters will leap more than 17 percent, adding $44.2 million to the district’s budget gap. Currently, the district allocates more than $580 million to the charter/cyber-charter school system.
“In the last two years, public schools have taken nearly a $1 billion cut in state funding, followed by a second state budget that locked in those cuts. The latest survey of school districts found that because of these state funding cuts to public education, an estimated 20,000 jobs been eliminated or left vacant,” Roebuck said, “along with reductions in early childhood education programs, tutoring assistance and summer school and increased class sizes…these state funding cuts have also forced many districts to raise property taxes.”
SB 1115 – introduced by State Majority Whip Pat Browne and currently awaiting vote in the Rules and Executive Nominations Committee — goes considerably softer on charter schools and related programs, as it calls for the implementation of Special Education Funding Commission, a greater communication between charter/cyber-charter operators and state education officials, allows for a partnership between charter schools and colleges and universities and other smaller reforms.
“I support SB 115,” said Dr. Walter D. Palmer, a longtime local pioneer of the charter school movement and founder of the Walter D. Palmer Leadership and Learning Partners Charter School. “It’s my understanding that the bill has not been voted on yet, but they are working the kinks out of it. The pieces in particular about ten-year charter renewals and uniform applications for applying for charters is good for managing a student’s success. That way, everyone will be held accountable to the same standard.
“I do not support HB 2661.”
Palmer said the relationship between charter schools and the traditional public school system has deteriorated over the years, and believes SB 1115 would help rectify the conflict.
“We are just not able to have a civil relationship with school districts, which is unfortunate,” Palmer said. “So SB 1115 bodes well for us in that regard.”
Indeed, State Representative Dwight Evans — himself a longtime proponent of school choice and the voucher program, said there “shouldn’t be talk of pitting charters against public schools.”
I keep trying to tell people that charters and traditional public schools are really the same, as they are both about educating and caring for our students,” Evans said, noting that he doesn’t expect HB 2661 to get very far, considering the few days left in the month to get votes in and that there will be no lame-duck session. “Charter schools are just a way to offer choice to our community, so all this hostility towards charter schools is really counterproductive.”