“Choice?” “Accountability?” Definitions vary on both sides of the charter school debate

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LANCASTER, Pa. (WHTM) — Governor Tom Wolf accused Republican leaders of refusing to move forward legislation that would “level the playing field” between charter schools and public school districts, despite bipartisan support to do so.

“There are enough votes in the legislature to have this pass,” said Rep. Michael Sturla (D-Lancaster), speaking Tuesday alongside Wolf and leaders from two Lancaster County school districts. “But there are certain leaders that will not allow the bill to ever see the light of day” despite — he said — legislation introduced by an Erie-area Republican and — Wolf said — the support of about 400 out of Pennsylvania’s nearly 500 public school districts.

Wolf, Sturla and the superintendents of the School District of Lancaster and Solanco school district said several times that they were particularly concerned about cyber charter schools, which rose in popularity during the pandemic. They said cyber charters have poor results and divert more funding from public school districts than they actually need to educate children.

“I’m a fan of school choice,” Wolf said. But “the charter school law that we have in place really needs to be reformed.”

“Somebody needs to say, ‘Hey guys that are running charter schools. This isn’t the cash cow that maybe you thought it was gonna be,'” Sturla said.

But charter school advocates say public school districts are the ones sometimes not providing bang for the buck.

“What Governor Wolf continues to tout as ‘cost savings’ for school districts is nothing more than an attack on families who have exercised their right to choose a public charter school for their children,” Lenny McAllister, CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.

“Unfortunately, Governor Wolf has shown a certain hostility toward all education alternatives other than the district public schools,” added Stephen Bloom, vice-president of the right-leaning Commonwealth Foundation.

He characterized Wolf’s position as believing in more accountability only for charter schools. “There should be accountability in all realms of public education,” Bloom said. And the PCPCS said charter schools get 25 percent less funding per pupil, on average, than traditional public schools.

Wolf said public schools are structurally more accountable.

“If you don’t like what’s going on here, you can vote these folks out,” he said, gesturing toward a school board member. “You can’t do that with a charter school board of directors.”

As for the idea that Republican legislative leaders are afraid of an up-or-down vote among all members?

“Every piece of legislation has to go through the legislative process,” said Jason Gottesman, spokesman for Pennsylvania House Republicans. “Charter school changes remain a topic of interest among some members. However, until there is a piece of legislation that can get support from the very first level, which is committee support, there isn’t a broader caucus discussion.”

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