The debate over charter school reform has once again resurfaced in Harrisburg. On April 18, the House Education Committee moved HB97 out of committee on a bi-partisan 17-10 vote.
Ever year, opponents of a charter reform bill seem to focus on a different line of attack. Last year, the School District of Philadelphia said that absent enrollment caps, the District would be decimated by “unfettered charter expansion.” Since charter reform never made it to the finish line last year, the current law prohibiting enrollment caps remained. Not only has unfettered charter expansion failed to materialize, Dr. Hite has publicly asserted that the District is in the best financial position of his five-year tenure.
This year, the predominant message seems to be that HB97 does not treat charters and traditional public schools equally. Prior to voting against the bill Rep. Roebuck, minority chairman of the House Education Committee, said, “While there is some good reform to the Charter School Law in House Bill 97, they are far outweighed by many provisions that increase the divide between the way that charter schools and traditional public schools are treated by the state.” This argument was echoed this morning at a press conference held by a handful of House Democrats to introduce a package of bills aimed at leveling the playing field between charters and district schools.
Let’s unpack this argument a little.
Does Roebuck and his fellow democrats really want to see charter schools and traditional public schools treated equally? Let’s start at the place where one should always begin when analyzing the politics of education: money.
Charter schools receive, on average, between 75-80 cents on the dollar compared to traditional public schools. The primary source of this disparity is the lack of facilities funding for charter schools. Are these representatives arguing for increasing funding for charter schools to get closer to parity between charter and traditional schools or cutting 25 percent of every district’s allocation from the state?
Second, the purpose of charter schools is to provide more flexibility in exchange for more autonomy. To that end, charter schools are subject for renewal every five years, which means they can be closed if they do not meet the terms of their charter. If these members really wanted to treat charter schools and traditional public schools equally, one of them would have introduce a bill as part of their package to require traditional public schools be subject to renewal every five years?
To be fair, there are some examples of provisions in HB97 that, on the surface, seem like they are treating charters differently in a way that is unfair. Let’s examine one example:
Unassigned fund balances: Under current law, there is no cap on how much money a charter school can save in an unassigned account, whereas school districts have unassigned fund balance limits of between 8-12 percent of their total budget. HB97 sets fund balance limits for charter schools at 12-16 percent. While I’m sympathetic to the argument that the limit should be identical to districts, there are two important points to remember: 1. Governor Wolf’s first budget proposed eliminating fund balances completely for charters, thus proving that he doesn’t really care about treating charters and district equally; and 2. There are several reasons why charter schools might need to have more money in reserves than a school district, including their inability to levy taxes and significant mid-year funding adjustments, which is the result of a quirk in how charter schools are funded.
At PennCAN, we believe that all students deserve to be given an equal opportunity to attend a high-quality school. But charter schools and traditional public schools are different and it’s inevitable that they will sometimes be treated differently under the law. The great hypocrisy of charter critics using the language of “equal treatment” is that they would almost certainly oppose the most meaningful measures to get to equity, like equal funding and closing traditional public schools when they fail to perform.