By Peter L. DeCoursey

Bureau Chief

HARRISBURG (June 3) – The House Education Committee on Monday moved to the floor a sweeping charter school reform package supporters say will move an estimated $80 million a year from charters back to their districts. The committee separately passed legislation containing a three-year moratorium on new cyber charter schools.

House Bill 618 also contains a 19-member, two year charter school funding commission with six members each from the charter school and school district communities, with the balance of appointees coming from the four legislative caucuses and the governor.

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, said: “This legislation would reform Pennsylvania’s 16-year-old charter school law that saves school districts nearly $100 million in two years, and furthermore it makes much needed fiscal and accountability improvements.

“It achieves these savings and reforms while promoting real school choice for students and their parents.”

The savings are achieved by allowing school districts, during the two years the funding commission is assessing facts, to deduct its cafeteria and pension costs before applying the funding formula which sends funds to cyber charter schools.

But House Minority Education Committee Chairman James Roebuck, D-Philadelphia, said: “I have introduced a bill that would save $365 million in the first year and include more financial accountability and more comprehensive reforms to these publicly funded schools. The Republican bill doesn’t even come close, and I and other Democrats plan to offer amendments to it in the full House. Without changes, this bill deserves a D-plus because it doesn’t save nearly enough.”

Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, responded: “Updating charter school policy is critical and would directly increase funding for traditional public schools. House Bill 618 would build a solid foundation to strengthen school choice options for students and families across the Commonwealth, while creating a level funding playing field for public schools.”

“This compromise would strengthen educational opportunities for all students in Pennsylvania, regardless of where they are attending public school. We know that offering families educational choices allows students to flourish. It’s all about finding the right balance, and this legislation is an excellent starting point.”

The comprehensive amendment that changed House Bill 618 to its current form – CLICK HERE for a full summary prepared by House Republican staff – passed 13-12, with all Democrats voting against it. The bill was also moved to the House on an identical party-line vote, with two Republicans joining committee Democrats in each case.

Roebuck praised House Bill 618 for removing the “double dip” that gives cyber charter schools more funding for pension costs, but wanted the same change made for regular charter schools, which serve ten times as many students.

The Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools disagreed, stating: “HB 618 contains an unfair provision which allows school districts to deduct 100 percent of their pension contributions before paying the cyber charter schools for the district’s children attending a cyber charter school. This change simply eliminates one inequity by creating another. Here’s why.

“Right now the districts pass through 100 percent of the pension expense to the cybers for the teachers who are teaching the districts’ children in the cyber school. The Commonwealth then reimburses the districts and cybers for 50 percent of their pension costs. That is the double dip for the cybers and it should be rectified.

“The problem is that the language passed by the House Education Committee goes too far in rectifying this inequity. By allowing the districts to deduct 100 percent of the pension expenses, while still receiving their 50 percent reimbursement from the state, the language enables the districts to retain taxpayer money, and receive state reimbursement, for expenses they simply do not incur while forcing underfunding of the pension liability for the cyber schools. This simply replaces a “cyber double dip” with a “district double dip.” Moreover, it will lead to an average 10 percent per year funding cut to the cybers while in effect. This is on top of the fact that they are already educating children for 20 percent less than the traditional schools. This severe, arbitrary, and unfair cut in funding will effectively destroy some of the cyber schools in Pennsylvania well before the two year sunset provision kicks in.

“Two far more equitable solutions would be to either cut the district pass-through to the amount they are not reimbursed by the Commonwealth and retain the state reimbursement for both district and cyber schools, or retain the total pass-through from the districts and eliminate the state reimbursement to the cybers.”

Roebuck also praised the bill for requiring a similar teacher evaluation system for charters to the system in district-run public schools. And he said the committee’s approval of House Bill 980 would apply surplus fund balance limits used for school district to charter schools, and ban all new cyber charters for three years. That passed 17-8 in the committee, with all ten Democrats voting for it, and Republicans opposing it 8-7.

The charter school association responded: “HB 980 is an ill-conceived piece of legislation that is intended to be punitive to charter schools and stands to do nothing to improve education for the children of Pennsylvania. HB 980 contains two major elements that threaten parental public school choice: a three-year moratorium on all cyber charters and a cap on unassigned fund balances for ALL charter schools. It is our hope the full House will oppose HB 980.”

But Roebuck said House Bill 618’s provisions on charter school managers’ fiscal transparency and conflict of interest are too weak, and that it fails to address:

• Special education overpayments;

• Mandating a year-end budget reconciliation between the charter school tuition paid by taxpayers and the schools’ actual costs;

• Banning taxpayer funding for advertising by charter and cyber charter schools.

House Bill 618 also states the funding commission should decide if a statewide charter school authorizer is necessary. The bill also achieves direct payment of charter schools by the state, a long-sought goal of the charters. The Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials withdrew its previous opposition to that provision once documentation and verification procedures were improved, committee staff said.

The committee also voted to approve House Bill 1207 to raise the traditional Educational Improvement Tax Credit for business scholarships for students attending K-12 schools other than their district public school . It would raise the EITC tax credits from $100 million a year to $125 million a year, approving a bill by Rep. Jim Christiana, R-Beaver.