Commentary: Pa. charters' authorizers need authority

David Lapp

is the director of policy research at Research for Action, a Philadelphia-based education organization (www.reserachforaction.org)

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Auditor General Eugene DePasquale talks about charter school oversight as Philadelphia Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. listens. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

A good charter school law must ensure that authorizers have actual authority over their charter schools.

That's the conclusion to be gleaned from a recently released "performance" audit of the School District of Philadelphia's Charter School Office by state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.

The report finds the district compliant with state law "in all significant respects" on charter authorization, but suggests changes are needed to ensure quality.

DePasquale said three of his four main findings were "beyond the control" of the district and primarily attributable to weaknesses in the state charter school law, which he called "simply the worst" in the nation. First, he cited the "uncontrollable and unpredictable" costs of legal challenges from charters. Second, were the "unintended consequences" from the 2014 cigarette tax law that forced the district to accept new charter applications even during a fiscal crisis - which will soon outpace any short-term revenue boost. Third, the state Education Department deducts disputed tuition payments - $15 million to date - from district revenues and forwards them to charters, without fact-finding or due process.

DePasquale's fourth finding, the lack of oversight capacity in the city Charter School Office, is also largely beyond the district's control. Unlike 27 other jurisdictions across the country, Pennsylvania does not provide dedicated funding for charter school authorization. As the number of charter students has grown rapidly, the Charter School Office has been plagued by the same budget crisis that affected the rest of the district.

Regarding the understaffing of the Charter School Office, the district seems more victim than culprit. What's more, given recent progress, now seems an odd time for criticism.

In recent years the district has adopted a robust "Authorizing Quality Initiative" that more closely aligns with national best practices. Just last month, the charter office launched annual charter evaluations on its website that contain previously unavailable public data for each charter school, including a review of enrollment and disciplinary policies. In an era of inadequate state funding, these improvements are impressive.

Meanwhile, DePasquale's comments to the media suggested that the General Assembly has been close to passing amendments to the charter school law that would have fixed the problems found in his audit. That seems a stretch.

Numerous amendments have been offered to the law, including last year's school code bill. Various provisions would have standardized student enrollment for charters, implemented fund balance limits, and required annual independent audits. But few provisions that would have moved the needle on the auditor general's main findings ever came close to passage.

In fact, many amendments would have weakened the authority of charter school authorizers. For example, the school code bill would have doubled the length of some charters, from five years to 10, effectively cutting in half the times an authorizer conducted a "comprehensive review" of performance. It would have stacked the appeals board with additional charter school representatives. And it would have allowed charter schools, through appeal, to amend their "legally binding" charters without the consent of their authorizers. Previous versions of the legislation would have terminated even negotiated enrollment caps.

There is nothing particularly controversial about authorizers needing meaningful authority to ensure charter school accountability. When charters underperform, national proponents often blame the problem on a lack of strong authorizing. Locally, Philadelphia Charter Schools for Excellence and the Philadelphia Schools Partnership issued a joint position paper that called for adoption of laws to "expedite closure of underperforming charters." They even lauded the charter law in Washington, D.C., for allowing fewer appeals and, when appeals occur, providing greater deference to authorizers. No D.C. charter has successfully overturned an authorizer's closure decision.

Notably, Washington has been cited as having one of the highest-performing charter school sectors in the country. Its law, while not perfect, allows authorizers to charge an oversight fee of up to 1 percent of each charter school's annual budget, generating revenue for oversight staff.

The D.C. law also empowers authorizers to enforce enrollment caps and grant consent before charter operators can amend the terms of their written charters. These provisions create the kind of meaningful authorizer authority that is missing in Pennsylvania's charter school law.

There is always tension in the charter school debate about the correct balance between autonomy and accountability. But if our commonwealth expects to fundamentally improve authorizing, then its charter school law will need amending to strengthen, not weaken, the authorizers. So far, such amendments have not received traction in Harrisburg.

dlapp@researchforaction.org