With possible reforms on the way, a Pennsylvania Senate panel is hearing testimony from a number of speakers working in the charter and public school arena.
The Senate Education Committee this week took testimony from more than a dozen educators during a three-hour hearing on the status of charter schools across Pennsylvania.
The hearing comes as Pennsylvania legislators are considering changes to the state’s laws related to charter school requirements.
House Bill 355, authored by state Rep. Mike Reese, R-Mount Pleasant, is a piece of legislation that would place stricter requirements on advertising, the composition of boards overseeing charter schools, and stipulations on outside financial audits, among other possible provisions.
State Sen. Wayne Langerholc Jr., R-Richland, said he called the hearing because he considered it “a very, very important topic.”
“I understand that this is a passionate subject,” said Langerholc, who chairs the committee.
The committee’s minority chairman, state Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-West Chester, offered up criticism of the gulf between charters and public schools.
When Pennsylvania first adopted legislation in support of charters, Dinniman said, the goal was to foster an innovative setting that would work hand-in-hand with traditional public schools.
“I think you’ve done some great things in charter schools, but the failure has been to share that,” Dinniman said.
David Hardy, senior adviser of Excellent Schools PA, was among the speakers offering up testimony at the hearing. The organization Hardy helms serves as a coalition for charter schools across Pennsylvania.
During his comments, Hardy said he believed charters inherently are held to a higher degree of accountability than public school counterparts and called on lawmakers to look more at why parents are opting to leave their home districts.
“More parents want charters,” Hardy said, arguing they are doing so because of dissatisfaction with the traditional public school setting. “We have a high degree of accountability … in a parent who has the choice to leave or the choice to stay.”
In response to Hardy’s comments, Dinniman said he urged advocates in both settings not to point fingers at one another, but instead foster a more collaborative approach. On several occasions, Hardy described charters as “a movement.”
“I urge this movement not to try and put legal barriers in these kinds of discussions,” Dinniman said. “It’s only through these kinds of conversations that we can join in this together.”
During comments, state Sen. James Brewster, D-McKeesport, also told Hardy and others working within the charter school system that the legislation under review is designed to help it and public schools.
“This is not about hurting anyone in this room,” Brewster said. “This is about fine-tuning a mission, which has grown. Don’t be scared by charter school reform. It’s not putting you out of business.”
A common theme shared throughout the hearing was perceived inequities between charter and public schools in Pennsylvania.
John Chandler, CEO of PA Virtual Charter School, said charters are at a disadvantage from the standpoint of standardized test score data, which lumps each charter into one score, while individual schools in a district are scored part and parcel.
“If public schools were scored as we are, they would look different,” Chandler said of standardized test scores.
Other representatives in the charter system attempted to defend past criticisms, including transparency concerning financial management.
“We are every bit transparent,” Michael Conti, CEO of Agora Cyber Charter School, said. “I would be happy to throw the books open to any auditor.”
In the traditional public school setting, the Senate panel heard from several representatives within the School District of Philadelphia.
“We’re not, as some might suggest, anti-charter schools,” Joyce Wilkerson, the district’s board president, said.
But Wilkerson did call on lawmakers to enact legislation that gives decision-makers more authority in closing chronically underperforming charter schools in a swifter manner. The current process, she said, is “lengthy and expensive.”