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School officials react to Wolf’s charter reforms

Public district leaders favor plan; cyber chiefs cite conflict of interest

Officials from area school districts have reacted favorably to Gov. Tom Wolf’s recent efforts to implement charter school reform.

But one charter school leader says the governor’s plan is harmful to institutions like his.

Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School CEO James Hanak said Wolf’s push for reform represents a conflict of interest.

“Wolf got into his governorship with $20 million from the teachers’ union,” Hanak said.

“One of the things they wanted in return was to have him halt or hinder the charter school movement because charter schools, by and large, are not unionized.”

Wolf recently announced his charter school reform plan, which he said would save school districts and taxpayers throughout the commonwealth nearly $400 million per year.

Altoona Area School Board member Dave Francis said it’s time Wolf stepped in.

“Finally, Governor Wolf is taking initiative to combat the cyber charter costs to make them responsible for what they are spending and what the kids’ grades are,” Francis said.

Francis said the primary issue with charters is the funding they get at public schools’ expense. These private institutions, he said, are draining the financial resources from districts like Altoona Area.

“They’re taking away our money and we’re spending more than we should,” Francis said. “There’s no recourse for districts to go and see how much these cyber schools actually spend and how the students are doing in school. We have to pay the bill they send us.”

According to Altoona Area School District Superintendent Charles Prijatelj, that bill is between $4.5 and $4.8 million for this year. As for the per-student cost, District Assistant Superintendent Brad Hatch said the district pays about four times as much per charter student as it does per public school student.

According to Hanak, though, charters are the schools suffering financially. He said Wolf’s reform plan will only make it worse.

“Charter schools already only get 75 cents on the dollar for every dollar that they spend on that same student,” Hanak said. “What Wolf’s plan could do is actually take that down to 50 cents on the dollar. (Charters) are working with half the resources, but held to the same standards.”

Francis believes charter schools have been receiving special treatment because they aren’t held to the same standards as their public school counterparts.

“(Cyber charters) don’t have to report to the state on how they’re doing as far as children’s progress and our district can only spend (COVID-19 relief) money on certain items, but we don’t know what cyber charters can spend their money on,” Francis said.

Like Francis, Prijatelj supports Wolf’s plan. The superintendent said there are “aspects” of the plan that he likes.

“Changes to how special ed is handled and how it’s funded are huge to us because the higher-needs special ed students are not going to be as enticed to go to cyber because they need much more hands-on instruction and support,” Prijatelj said. “So, with the tiered system for special ed, (Wolf’s plan) will definitely benefit us.”

Hollidaysburg Area School District Superintendent Robert Gildea said Wolf’s plan will “absolutely work.”

“Any common sense help with the current charter funding system will greatly assist school districts in decreasing the burden on our taxpayers,” Gildea said.

While he supports Wolf’s plan, Gildea fears that other proposed legislation, specifically Senate Bill 1, won’t address the problem. He said the bill has a slew of shortcomings. “Senate Bill 1 relates to the charter school law with some language regarding ethics and audits that (Pennsylvania Alternate System of Assessment) has requested,” Gildea said. “But most of the bill’s language is favorable to charter schools and there is nothing regarding the tuition formula or financial relief for school districts.”

Gildea added that on top of that, Senate Bill 1 would take discretion away from school boards and taxpayers by implementing charter approval in Harrisburg instead of keeping it in individual districts.

“What is also clear is that the bill would provide another option for charter school approval other than local school boards by establishing the Public Charter School Commission, which would consist of legislative appointees and one appointee from the governor,” Gildea said. “In other words, with strong pro-charter House and Senate majorities, the commission would provide a smoother process for charter approval without local school board input.”

Central Cambria School District Superintendent Jason Moore supports Wolf’s plan for reform, though he said the governor could do even more.

“I definitely support Wolf’s plan,” Moore said. “But I would say it doesn’t go far enough to limit the reach of cyber charter schools. It’s definitely a step in the right direction.”

Perhaps Moore’s biggest grievance with these charters is the quality of the education they provide.

“There’s really no evidence whatsoever that they’re effective if you look at the performance,” Moore said. “They’re all at the bottom list of performance and they’re getting gobs of money from local school districts.”

Hanak’s response to this?

“Are you aware of the SAT and ACT scores? We’re in the top 5% of all high schools in Pennsylvania,” he said of his institution.

According to a Capitolwire press release, charters in the commonwealth often have low graduation rates, and all Pennsylvania cyber schools are designated for federal school improvement.

Hanak said charter students’ low performance isn’t their teachers’ fault.

“The average student coming to us is a year and a half behind in their studies,” Hanak said. “In essence, if our students are performing poorly, it’s not because of us; it’s because of the school they came from.”

As for the quality of the education in charters, Hanak said the data speak for themselves.

“There are studies that show charter schools in general are better academically than their counterparts,” Hanak said. “You can pull out our curriculum catalog and you will see virtually every course that you would want to take at a high school, including nine different languages, AP, honors courses; you name it, we’ve got it. There’s no limit as to what you can take at these cyber charter schools.”

Hanak added that charter school teachers are “as good, if not better,” than those in public school districts.

Portage Area School District Superintendent Eric Zelanko said institutions like Hanak’s rob public school students of educational opportunities. He thinks Wolf’s plan is “a good starting point.” Without it, Zelanko said, public schools will continue to suffer from the loss of funds to private charters.

“Students who remain in traditional schools would continue to lose out on opportunity,” Zelanko said. “That’s the long-term impact.”

Mirror Staff Writer Andrew Mollenauer is at 814-946-7428.

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