Fiscal watchdog says Pa. has 'worst charter school law in US'

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) - It is a bold and powerful statement and Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said it twice for emphasis.

"We have, clearly, the worst charter school law in the United States," DePasquale said at a Capitol news conference Thursday afternoon.

It's not the first time DePasquale has blasted the commonwealth's  lax laws governing charter and cyber charter schools. He's hoping to catch the attention of the legislature and motivate them to overhaul the law in the final days of the current legislative session.

DePasquale cited the founder of Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School Nicholas Trombetta, of Beaver County, as symptomatic of the bigger problem.

"Trombetta exploited every gray area in the law to get rich off the backs of students and taxpayers," DePasquale said.

Trombetta is no longer affiliated with any charters in Pennsylvania. He has pleaded guilty and will be sentenced on federal tax charges in December. But, troubling to DePasquale is the fact that the Pennsylvania Department of Education never caught the fact that Trombetta started Pennsylvania Cyber Charter - and other schools - and then steered contracts worth more than $100 million taxpayer dollars to a curriculum and management company that Trombetta founded.

DePasquale said there are numerous conflicts of interest across the charter universe. But the auditor general praised PA Cyber teachers, many of whom blew the whistle on those pricey contracts.

"What teachers told us was not only was the management contract for curriculum outrageous, but it was so bad that they don't even use it. Countless teachers told us they are writing their own curriculum, even though this contract is in existence."

DePasquale made a point of saying despite what he calls weak laws, there are good charter schools and good charter school teachers. But in his view, the law needs to be overhauled to weed out the bad ones. Charters will remain a vital part of the educational landscape because they offer parents a choice.

"You could get rid of every charter school in the state by doing two things;" said Bob Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools. "One, listen to the parents who have left and understand why they left. Two, change to address their problems. Parents don't want to leave the district schools, they feel they have to for the future of their children."

The feds say Trombetta got rich and enriched friends and family with taxpayer money that should have been going to students. They say he owned a jet and a home in Florida. His wrongdoing involved taxes. DePasquale says he's not sure Trombetta technically broke the charter school law because it's too weak.

"This needs to change," he said sternly.

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