Updates to Pennsylvania’s Charter School Law Desperately Needed

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In 2011, charter school supporters were optimistic that Pennsylvania was finally going to make some much-needed updates to its charter school law. Over the past three years, there have been a number of attempts to do so, but they’ve come up short each time.

While Pennsylvania lawmakers have failed to act, policymakers in other states have been making significant improvements to their charter laws. As a result, Pennsylvania’s charter school law continues to fall in the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ annual rankings. It came in at #12 in January 2010, but fell to #19 by January 2013. With a number of states making improvements to their laws this year, Pennsylvania is sure to drop even further in our next report in January 2014.

In the most recent attempt to overhaul the state’s charter school law, a coalition of six organizations–the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, Philadelphia Charters for Excellence, Philadelphia’s Black Alliance for Educational Options, Students First PA, PennCAN, and StudentsFirst–released a “Position Paper on SB 1085 Charter School Reform Legislation.”

This paper details some important and overdue changes that these organizations are supporting in Senate Bill 1085, including allowing universities to serve as authorizers, creating an academic performance matrix to inform authorizers’ decisions during the charter renewal process, and allowing high-performing charter schools with multiple campuses to combine and operate under the governance of a single board. The paper also calls for the creation of a commission to study how charter schools should be funded in the state.

As the organizations acknowledge, SB 1085 is not perfect, and they are working to improve the bill as it makes it way through the legislative process. SB 1085 recently passed the Senate Appropriations Committee with additional amendments on a 15-11 vote. The most controversial issue is university authorizers, which isn’t surprising given the potential game-changing impact of that provision. The amended bill now moves to the full senate for a vote, either later this year or in January. We remain hopeful that the hard work of Pennsylvania’s charter school advocates will result in a bill that creates more high-quality public charter school options for the state’s students.

Todd Ziebarth is the senior vice president for state advocacy and support at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

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