- Associated Press - Friday, March 28, 2014

The four Democratic gubernatorial candidates on Friday promised to take a hard line against charter and cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania, from pulling the plug on ones that struggle to educate to refusing public dollars for ones operated by private companies.

Across the board, the candidates saved their biggest criticism for cyber charter schools, but also made it clear that some of the more traditional cyber schools are failing and unworthy of taxpayer money. They spoke at a two-hour forum at the annual convention of the Pennsylvania College Democrats at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Some pointed out that charter schools, despite several years of debate in the Legislature, are not accountable to state ethics and open records laws, and they echoed longstanding complaints in the Legislature that charter schools are overcompensated for their actual costs, such as pensions.

All four are public school boosters, while Republican Gov. Tom Corbett has battled public school teachers unions and sought to promote private, parochial and charter schools. He also has drawn heavy criticism for his budget-balancing cuts to schools in his first budget year, 2011.

Thus far, the Democratic candidates have largely avoided attacking each other in public, while concentrating their barbs toward Corbett. They also largely agree on the issues and took other questions Friday night on marijuana policy, the federal health care law and higher education affordability.

The primary election is May 20. Corbett is seeking a second four-year term in the Nov. 4 election while battling lackluster performance in public opinion polls.

U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz said she would defund cyber charter schools and reroute the money back into traditional public schools.

“I don’t think we should be putting public dollars into cyber charters,” Schwartz told the crowd at Temple’s student center. She estimated the amount of money that goes toward cyber charter schools at about $360 million, and said, “that’s money that could be going into public schools that are being starved by this governor.”

Former Clinton White House environmental adviser Katie McGinty said she would refuse taxpayer money for any charter school that is operated by a for-profit company. She said there had been too many instances of financial abuse by charter school operators, and that she was “close” to allowing no taxpayer dollars for cyber charter schools.

State Treasurer Rob McCord, who is endorsed by the state’s largest school employees’ union, said he would have to have a lot of evidence proving the worth of cyber charter schools before funding them at all. On charter schools, he acknowledged that some are very good while others are deeply flawed and the state needs to take a close look at them.

“We need to end the rip-offs in charter schools and fund the promising ones,” McCord said.

Businessman Tom Wolf said it is hard to justify cyber charter schools. And while some charter schools are good, he said, they must be held accountable for the education they provide, and their funding formula must be overhauled.

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