After years of political gridlock on charter school reform, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf said Tuesday he would use his executive power to hold charters to “the same ethical and transparency standards of public schools.”
Wolf said he would cap enrollment at charter schools that fail to provide “high-quality” education or equitable access and ramp up oversight of charter management companies — the private companies that sometimes provide academic and logistical services to non-profit charter schools. He’d also charge charter schools for the cost state agencies incur to oversee them and reform charter enrollment practices, among other changes.
He plans to direct the Pennsylvania Department of Education to make these changes through regulation.
The announcement will likely trigger backlash from the state’s growing charter school sector, which educates about 143,000 children.
Charters, which are publicly financed but privately run, have generated legions of fans and foes since the 1997 law that created them in Pennsylvania. But that political heat hasn’t led to much meaningful reform, despite advocates on both sides pushing for different changes to the original law.
Charter skeptics say the schools draw students and resources from traditional public schools and don’t serve the highest-need children. That includes those with disabilities and those learning English.
Backers argue that charters don’t get their fair share of public funding and are subject to onerous regulation that curtails their original intent as laboratories of innovation. They believe government interference in the sector stifles parent choice and privileges traditional public schools, along with the unionized educators on their payrolls.
Wolf also proposed a barrage of charter reform laws Tuesday, in addition to his executive actions.
They include measures that would halt the expansion of cyber charter schools, establish “performance standards” for measuring charter school outcomes, make charter management companies subject to the state’s Right-to-Know law, alter the state’s formula for funding charter schools, and establish a “charter school funding commission” to make further recommendations on the topic.
Charter school effectiveness is a matter of intense debate across Pennsylvania, and indeed, the country.
The schools are popular among parents, especially in large cities, such as Philadelphia, which has about half of the state’s charter school students.
Academic research is more mixed. A recent study by Stanford researchers found that brick-and-mortar charter schools in Pennsylvania do slightly better than traditional public schools, but that the state’s cyber charter schools perform poorly.
Charter schools emerged about two decades ago, supported by free-market conservatives and many Democrats disillusioned with the state of traditional public schools in poor communities.
Liberal support for the charters, however, has waned in recent years, with many Democratic politicians, like Wolf, highlighting the sector’s impact on traditional public schools.
That said, polling suggests charters remain popular among core Democratic constituencies, such as Black and hispanic voters.