House panel approves four charter school bills

HARRISBURG — A House committee passed four charter school bills Monday, two by party-line votes, amid signs that these bills will see new amendments during the coming weeks.

The four-bill package approved by the Education Committee reflects a continuation of efforts by the Re­publican-controlled House to tackle a range of issues regarding charter school administration and expansion.

“It is time to push the issue,” said Education Majority Committee Chair­man Curt Sonney, R-Erie, while acknowledging he hopes to find a bipartisan approach to updating the 1997 state charter school law.

He expects amendments to the bills when they reach the House floor.

Sonney said other actions beyond the bills voted on Monday will be needed to fully address issues concerning charter school funding and accountability.

The committee voted 14-10, along party lines, to approve House Bills 356 and 357. HB356 would give charter schools a first right of refusal for the purchase or lease of unused school district buildings and require school districts, community colleges and state-owned universities to give cyber charter schools reasonable access to their facilities to give standardized tests. HB357 would require the state Education Department to create a uniform process for a charter school application and a uniform charter amendment process. In addition to committee Democrats voting against the legislation, both bills are opposed by the Pennsyl­vania School Boards Association and the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials.

The panel voted unanimously to approve House Bill 355, which seeks to create new ethics requirements for charter school trustees and administrators, and voted 23-1 to approve House Bill 358, which would allow charter school students to be dually enrolled in concurrent college classes through a higher education institution.

Many of the provisions in these four bills were contained in last session’s House Bill 97, touted as a comprehensive charter school reform bill, however, there have been some changes since the House and Senate passed different versions of HB97 in 2017 without reconciling them.

Regarding HB357, the sponsor Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford, said not having a uniform way to amend charter school charters creates a transparency problem.

House Education Demo­cratic Committee Chairman James Roebuck, D-Phila­delphia, said the bill would remove school district oversight of the process and create a backdoor expansion of charter schools. If a charter school wants to make significant changes, it should do so during the renewal process, Roebuck added.

HB355 sponsor Rep. Mike Reese, R-Westmoreland, said his legislation would bring charter school trustees and administrators under the state Ethics Act and require their recusal on votes involving a conflict of interest.

The committee defeated along party lines an amendment by Roebuck to prevent charter school administrators and management service provider administrators to be reimbursed for the lease of a building used by a charter school.

Notwith­standing the “no” vote, Sonney said such a proposal has merit and will be considered as the bill moves advances through the General Assembly.

Democratic lawmakers withdrew some amendments in committee after Sonney announced his intent to work on a bipartisan approach to the bills.

The package of bills doesn’t address some of the issues that proved challenging in 2017 – namely a new funding formula for cyber charter schools, creating a funding commission to study charter school funds and streamline the solving of charter payment disputes.