Between massive budget cuts and a push from the governor and some state legislators for school vouchers, it's been a tough year for Pennsylvania's public-school system.
And it could get a whole lot tougher.
Starting this fall, state legislators are expected to debate legislation that would essentially rewrite Pennsylvania's 14-year-old charter-school law. Among the proposals circulating through the state legislature are two identical bills that would fundamentally change the way charter schools are approved and reviewed.
A recent study shows that the state's charter schools are, on average, performing no better than their traditional counterparts. But supporters praise the legislation as a way to increase the number of well-managed, high-performing charter schools by beefing up state oversight.
Critics, however, argue that the bills would remove local control of charters while effectively crippling school districts already struggling with huge budget deficits.
"It appears that these charter bills would completely change the landscape of not just charter schools, but public education itself," says Baruch Kintisch, policy director for Pennsylvania's Education Law Center. "The impact could be revolutionary."
Charter schools, which are open to any student in a district, are a sort of hybrid between public and private schools. While operated independently, they are financed with public dollars -- if a student leaves his or her home district to attend a charter school, the money the state pays to educate that student goes with the student.
And while charters have broad leeway in areas like setting curriculum, they are held to the same academic and legal standards as public schools.
Pennsylvania passed its charter-school law in 1997. And ever since, the value of the schools it's helped create -- there are currently more than 150 operating in the state -- has been the subject of intense debate.
Advocates hail charters as laboratories of school reform that provide healthy competition to regular public schools. Opponents, on the other hand, counter that charter schools are a drain on school-district finances and that they are not always held accountable for their performance.
Count Sen. Jeffrey Piccola (R-Dauphin) as a member of the former group. In March, Piccola, who chairs the state's Education Committee, introduced legislation (known as Senate Bill 904) which he says would "strengthen our charter-school law [and] make additional choices available for Pennsylvania parents and students." A similar bill was introduced in the house.
Piccola, a co-sponsor of the much-debated voucher bill, is openly critical of the state's current education system, saying that too many traditional public schools are failing Pennsylvania's children. The intent of his legislation, as stated in the bill, is "to provide pupils and community members the ability to establish and maintain schools that operate independently from the existing school-district structure."
Some measures in the proposed legislation, such as provisions that would tighten ethics and financial-oversight regulations for charter schools, are relatively uncontroversial. For example, charter operators would be required to file annual ethics reports with the state Ethics Commission -- a provision intended to prevent management scandals that have recently plagued charter schools operating in Philadelphia.
Other parts of the bill, however, are much more contentious. Some provisions, critics argue, would drastically increase the number of charters operating in the state.
Currently, only local school boards are allowed to approve charter schools. If denied, applicants can appeal to the state, but charter advocates have long argued that having school boards as the only authorizer represents a conflict of interest.
Piccola's bill, however, would create two additional charter authorizers: local colleges and universities, as well as a politically appointed state commission that would be funded by the charter schools that it oversees. More than a dozen other states, including Arizona and New York, already have multiple authorizers.
With local districts as the sole charter authorizer, "it's sort of like McDonald's telling Arby's where all of their locations can be in your area." says Bob Fayfich, interim executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.
But some say adding authorizers is not such a good thing.
"We're concerned about initiatives that take away local control of public education," says David Broderic, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Education Association.
Even Randall Taylor, a charter supporter, says he has "a difficult time getting my head around the authorizer part." As imperfect as the current authorizing process may be under local districts, the former Pittsburgh Public Schools board member says it would be problematic for a university or the state commission to "fool with [local] tax dollars."
Given such options, Taylor says, "People will never apply for a charter through" local school boards.
Even if they did, the new legislation wouldn't require those applications to include one current fundamental requirement. For a charter school to be approved, the current law states that an applicant must demonstrate that its school will serve as a "model" for other public schools. In other words, the applicant school should offer some kind of unique program -- say an environmental or arts-oriented curriculum -- not found in nearby traditional schools.
But you won't find that requirement in Piccola's bill, which some say is problematic.
"What is the ultimate purpose for having charter schools in Pennsylvania: to replace public schools or to serve as an incubator of reform and innovation?" says the ELC's Kintisch. "The original idea for charters was the latter. And this legislation would remove that requirement."
But Richard Wertheimer, CEO of Downtown's City Charter High School, says the idea of charters being different is "kind of foolish. … It doesn't have to be different to be good, it has to be good to be good."
But exactly how good are Pennsylvania's charter schools? Some, at least, say they're not performing well enough to justify the financial burden they represent to local school districts.
According to a Stanford University study published in April, students attending Pennsylvania charter schools "on average make smaller learning gains" than their counterparts at traditional public schools. But looking at the average only tells part of the story.
"More than one quarter of the charter schools have significantly more positive learning gains than their traditional public-school counterparts," the study, conducted by Stanford's Center for Research on Education Outcomes, states. (The study did not name individual schools.) "[B]ut their performance is eclipsed by the nearly half of charter schools that have significantly lower learning gains."
In other words, Pennsylvania is home to a bunch of great charter schools and a bunch of bad ones. (Cyber charter schools, which could also be expanded if Piccola's legislation becomes law, performed the poorest, according to the Stanford study.) But either way, they cost districts lots of money.
For every student a charter takes, the Pittsburgh Public Schools loses roughly $12,000 in government funding. Peter Camarda, the district's executive director of budget development, management and operations, says the district currently spends roughly $38 million per year for students to attend the city's six charter schools. That cost will jump another $5 million next year, since the district recently approved two new charter schools.
For a district facing a 2012 projected deficit of $68 million, that's a lot of money. Superintendent Linda Lane says the legislation "would certainly make our [budget] situation more challenging."
"There could be significant costs to school districts if additional charters are approved," adds Broderic, of the PSEA.
Dealing with costs will be more difficult after Gov. Tom Corbett signed a state budget in June that eliminates the state's charter-school reimbursement program. This year the program provided $224 million in partial reimbursements for money lost.
Piccola says he doesn't buy the argument that his bill will bankrupt school districts.
"They've been saying that for the last 12 or 13 years that we've had charter schools," he says. "And I haven't seen the public-school system dismantled."
In fact, Piccola argues that his bill would actually improve district finances. That's because one provision in the legislation would make it easier to convert a district building into a charter school. "If a school district has a building that is failing and they want to get costs and academics under control," he says, "turn it over to a charter operator."
The bills will now be debated by both sides. Broderic says having the discussions, including talks about charter-school effectiveness, is a good thing.
As the Stanford study shows, Broderic says, it's important to have "a full and thorough analysis of our current charters to determine whether or not expanding charters is in the interest of Pennsylvania's public-school students."
But supporters of the legislation say time is running out.
"I feel [school districts'] pain," says Jeremy Resnick, executive director of charter operator Propel Schools, which will open its first charter in the city this fall. "But taxpayers are paying taxes to provide quality education to their children.
"We need to figure out how to improve our public schools."