Put this down as a victory for our grassroots movement! The proposed charter “reform” that Governor Corbett tried to ram through the legislature this week had died, in no small part because of the loud protest we mounted. The bill passed through the Senate last week and appeared to be ready to sail through the House this week, until public education advocates all over the state raised serious questions about many of its pieces. Most egregiously, the bill in its original form would have exempted charter school operators from Pennsylvania’s Right to Know law, taken away local control and accountability, and concentrated power in a state committee stacked with political appointees. (See “Where are the Real Republicans?” for all the details.)
Remember the story about the boiled frog? If a frog jumped into hot water, he’d hop right back out again, but a frog sitting in a pot slowly brought to a boil doesn’t realize until it’s too late that he’s cooked. The devil is in the details of these bills, and it’s these incremental legislative changes that will slowly boil our frog (and our schools). That’s why it was so important that we pay attention to those policy details and take action, like we did this week.
By Wednesday night, legislators in the House were working overtime before going into recess until after the election – and it was becoming increasingly clear that they didn’t have the votes to pass Senate Bill 1115. Many of our legislators agree that the charter funding formula in particular needs to be fixed. The state Auditor General estimates we are currently over-paying charter school operators $1million every day – that’s a huge pile of public taxpayer dollars going to line some very deep, private pockets. (See “One Million Per Day.”)
But rather than tackle this problem directly, this ill-fated bill would have formed a commission to study the problem, and loaded it with charter school operators. House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, a Republican from our neck of the woods, admitted that, “the funding for cyber charters, in particular, is an issue that has to be addressed,” but the proposed “commission wasn’t going to satisfy a lot of members [of the House].” [Post-Gazette, 10-19-12] Representative Paul Clymer, a Republican from Bucks County who chairs the House Education Committee, said legislators “felt there were ways in which the bill was more favorable to the charters and cyber charters than to [traditional] public schools,” and that the commission “was too stacked with pro-charter people.” [Philadelphia Inquirer, 10-19-12]
What’s most disappointing is the way that the Corbett administration tacked these charter “reform” measures onto a much needed special-education funding bill that had previously gained wide bi-partisan support. Shooting down SB1115 also meant tanking efforts to get more money to children with the most severe disabilities and those districts with large numbers of those students. When the legislature returns to this issue in January, which everyone expects they will do, our representatives ought to look to House Bill 2661 for guidance. Introduced by James Roebuck, a Democrat from Philadelphia and Democratic chair of the House Education Committee, this bill would a big step forward in really reforming the rules governing charter and cyber charter schools. (See “Now That’s More Like It”) But we’ll have our work cut out for us, since many of our state Senators – including a surprisingly number from Yinzer Nation – voted for SB1115 before the bill died in the House. (See Senate Roll Call.)
Meanwhile, it’s time for a little celebration in the grassroots. We have to recognize these achievements for what they are – real victories in saving public education from the fate of the boiled frog.