With the cost and quality of charter schools dominating the public education debate in Pennsylvania, lawmakers face at least a dozen major bills seeking better accountability and governance of such schools, which are publicly financed but independently run.
Much of the legislation focuses on funding formulas and audits. Yet some charter backers say what's missing is a provision for independent, statewide authorizers _ entities that can arguably weed out bad apples and ensure the operation of only high-quality charters.
"Great authorizing makes for great schools, both in terms of achievement and financial and operational accountability,'' said Jeanne Allen, president of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform.
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Allen is among those advocating for Pennsylvania to join states like New York, Michigan and Indiana, which use independent agencies to evaluate applications by would-be charter operators and monitor the schools' progress before granting renewals.
Currently, charter operators in Pennsylvania apply to local districts for approval. It's a process that some say has created a patchwork of standards and oversight because volunteer school boards don't have dedicated experts or uniform guidelines for assessing proposals.
"It was sort of a Wild West situation, where some districts have done a very good job, and others have not,'' said Robert Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.
The quality of Pennsylvania's 175 charters is a hot issue. Eight cyber charter applications were recently rejected due to academic and fiscal deficiencies; the auditor general this month alleged several improper charter school leasing arrangements; and state Rep. James Roebuck highlighted 44 troubled charters in introducing sweeping reform legislation last week.
Critics say charters drain resources from their district-operated counterparts without offering a better education. But supporters contend the alternative schools _ which enroll about 5 percent of students statewide _ offer innovative and sometimes safer alternatives to traditional schools.
The Pennsylvania School Boards Association opposes statewide authorizers because they give power to officials far removed from the ground-level effect of their rulings.
"They would be making decisions, funding decisions, for a local community and there would be no accountability back to those people," said spokesman Steve Robinson.
About half of U.S. states have some kind of independent commission to sanction charters, according to the Chicago-based National Association of Charter School Authorizers. That includes autonomous boards, university institutes, nonprofit agencies and non-educational municipal entities.
Association president Greg Richmond conceded statewide authorizers can be "a hard sell'' to legislatures because lawmakers don't want to create more bureaucracy or ask districts to give up local control. But he said the trend is growing as more people realize this is "specialized work that needs to be done well.''
"It should be about making smart decisions, about who can run a good school," Richmond said. "It shouldn't be a power issue. It should be about only approving good school proposals."
Some states allow districts to continue granting charters even with the presence of a statewide authorizer. That can lead to problems too, he noted, because operators turned down by one agency might simply apply to another.
"When there are too many authorizers in the state, it's a race to the bottom," Richmond said.
In New York, the only charter school authorizers are the state Board of Regents and trustees of the State University of New York.
SUNY trustees, through their Albany-based Charter School Institute, have been granting charters since 1999. Their approval rate is 36 percent, according to institute executive director Susan Miller Barker.
Each application is vetted by the institute's education, financial and legal experts, who also solicit input from the affected district. The staff subsequently makes a recommendation to the trustees, who have a reputation for being "rigorous" authorizers, Barker said.
About 36,000 students attend 117 SUNY-approved charter schools, many of which outperform their district counterparts, Barker said. Institute staff members also monitor school progress, she said, noting trustees have revoked about 10 percent of charters for poor academic performance.
Fayfich said Pennsylvania is "behind the curve" in its lack of a statewide authorizer, noting the failure of two recent charter reform bills that included the provision. He predicted authorizing legislation will be introduced again this session.
The Corbett administration supports the concept of a statewide, independent authorizer but would have to review the specifics of any proposal, said Education Department spokesman Tim Eller.
David Hardy, founder of Boys' Latin Charter School in west Philadelphia, welcomes the idea of university-based authorizers. Mismanaged charters that never should have been approved in the first place have unfairly tainted those that are doing good work, he said.
"Colleges know education, they know finance, they know operations. Because their name is going to be associated with the charter, they don't tolerate poor performance," Hardy said. "The college has a reputation to maintain."