- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 4, 2015

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Pennsylvania’s charter and cybercharter schools would obtain funding directly from the state Department of Education instead of through local districts as part of a package of changes that was passed Wednesday by the House.

The House voted 118-78 for a Republican-backed bill that also includes provisions designed to improve accountability, ethics and governance. School districts would save an estimated $27 million in what they pay cybercharters, partly because they could deduct food service costs.

Democratic opponents argued the bill would weaken the state charter appeals board by adding two members from charter schools.

They also said there is a need for mandatory audits to determine how much the schools spend on education.

“Lack of transparency and oversight has led, in many instances, to excessive management fees,” said Minority Whip Mike Hanna, D-Clinton.

The sponsor, Rep. Mike Reese, R-Westmoreland, said the bill would apply the Ethics Act to charter trustees and administrators and noted it addresses conflicts of interest, nepotism and auditing requirements.

He said it also provided for stronger enforcement of anti-truancy laws, a better enrollment process and more efficient administration of standardized tests. It would require teacher evaluations similar to those in public schools.

Rep. Steve Samuelson, D-Northampton, said the 18-year-old charter school law should be revised, but he argued that the bill was taking the wrong approach. He called for public hearings on the proposal.

“You might invite the taxpayers of Pennsylvania in - who are the ones who are paying for the charter schools,” Samuelson said.

Charters are now approved for three years, but the bill would change that to five years. Samuelson said that would mean “two extra years before a problem could be caught and addressed.”

Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster, noted that Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf endorsed a change to charter rules in his budget speech a day earlier that would save districts a projected $160 million. He called the bill “a tepid excuse for charter reform.”

“We heard the other day that this was a bill that was already negotiated, which was why we couldn’t do amendments because we already figured this out,” Sturla said. “I’m just wondering who we negotiated with.”

Wolf, speaking after an unrelated event at Hamburg Area High School on Wednesday, said he opposes the bill because he thinks it would add expenses and unneeded bureaucratic red tape that would not help prepare students for the future.

Wolf’s budget proposal calls for a limit of $5,950 per student in cybercharter payments, which would generate at least $160 million in savings for school districts. The districts paid cybercharters $421 million in the most recent school year.

The bill was sent to the Republican-controlled Senate, where a similar House-passed bill died last session.

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Associated Press writer Marc Levy contributed to this story from Hamburg, Pennsylvania.

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