Senate Bill 1085: The word “reform” + disgruntled special interest groups does not = good policy

Politicians who support SB 1085 are sending voters a message that anything labeled charter school “reform” will be beneficial to Pennsylvanians. They also say that SB 1085 must be good, because a diverse group of organizations opposes the bill—including teachers’ unions, cyber schools, school boards, and superintendents.   By their logic, “none got all and all got some,” so it must be great legislation.

The real truth is that the policy is just so damaging, so costly, and so far-reaching that every Pennsylvanian ought to be alarmed.  As another saying goes, where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

To be clear, SB 1085 will not strengthen the public education system in PA, will not improve the performance of public schools (charter or traditional), and it will not create efficiencies for taxpayers.

What will it do?  For starters, the 89-page bill…

  • Eliminates longstanding requirements that charter schools be models of innovation for other public schools—a change that opens the door for a second, parallel, and completely duplicative system of taxpayer-funded public education.
  • Allows more than 100 institutions of higher education, including sectarian and for-profit colleges and universities—and even institutions with no experience, capacity, or faculty in education—to authorize charter schools without input from local communities.  Charter schools will be able to set up shop without community approval, and send us the bill—whether we can afford it or not.
  • Guts school districts’ authority to negotiate enrollment caps on charter schools so that school districts can plan responsibly for the tuition payments they will make to charter schools.
  • Specifically prohibits a charter school funding commission from considering the fiscal impact charter school growth will have on local communities.
  • Permits charter schools (even poorly performing ones) to consolidate and be under the oversight of unelected PDE bureaucrats, instead of under the oversight of our locally-elected school boards.  And it
  • Doubles the length of a school’s charter from 5 to 10 years, thereby slicing charter school accountability in half.

What do we, as taxpayers, get in exchange?  Modest increases in financial transparency that charter schools will likely ignore, based on the experience of the state’s Open Records Office which has labeled charter schools “a cancer on an otherwise healthy [Right to Know] law.”  The legislation would also make modest adjustments to charter school finances, but these savings will be more that outweighed by the harmful policies detailed above.

It is strange that so many senators are supporting SB 1085 during a time when traditional public schools are struggling to provide the majority students in Pennsylvania with the basic opportunities they need to learn and when taxpayers are struggling under the load of their ever-increasing property tax bills.

It is also strange that Republican senators, who usually fight for local control, are advocating for a bill that would gut local control over charter school authorization and growth. This is especially odd when the taxpayers they represent will be obligated to pay students’ very expensive charter school tuition payments in addition to funding all of the traditional schools in their districts.

SB 1085 will not come up for a vote until after our legislators’ holiday break. Now is the time to call your state senator and to ask him/her to take a few hours over the break to read and study SB 1085.

Ask your senator take this opportunity away from Harrisburg to stop thinking about special interest groups and political pressures. Ask your senator to carefully consider what SB 1085 would mean to taxpayers and children in his/her district. Then ask your senator to consider what good charter school policy that strengthens all public schools (traditional and charter) and creates efficiencies for taxpayers looks like.

SB 1085 is not good policy, and represents a significant and immediate risk to the 90 percent of Pennsylvania school kids who attend public schools.  Ask your state senator to oppose this bill.

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