HARRISBURG — The Independent Regulatory Review Commission (IRRC) on Monday voted by division to approve regulations intended by the Wolf administration to improve the transparency and accountability of Pennsylvania’s public and cyber-charter schools.
The 3-to-2 vote by the five-member panel fell in favor of the parties of state officials who nominated the council members.
George Bedwick, Chairman of the Board, Murray Ufberg and Dennis Watson, all Democratic nominees, voted in favour. Republicans John Mizner, vice president, and John Soroko opposed.
The regulations could be blocked by the Republican-controlled General Assembly, but would likely require a veto-proof resolution given the support of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.
“These regulations are an essential step in clarifying the responsibilities of charter schools to the taxpayers who fund them,” Wolf said. “We were forced to go this route when the legislature refused to act on our extensive reform agenda. Charter schools received nearly $3 billion in state-paid tuition this school year. Parents and taxpayers have a right to know how these resources are being used.
There are 179 public charter and cyber-charter schools operating statewide with students enrolled in all 67 counties. Original public school districts redirect state funding to cover tuition. The PDE estimates that $3 billion in publicly paid tuition will go to charters in 2021-22.
Submitted by the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE), the regulations address six areas of existing state law. One of the goals is to avoid overpayment of tuition fees. The governor’s office estimates that the state’s 500 public schools would save $373 million annually through regulation.
The regulations also seek to clarify that charter school administrators are subject to the state’s code of ethics, including financial disclosure and conflict of interest reporting requirements. The rules create student performance standards to respond to underperforming schools.
They also require common accounting and auditing principles, mandate health insurance standards for employees, aim to prevent discriminatory enrollment practices, and standardize applications for new charter schools.
“I think all of the issues addressed by these regulations are long overdue issues. Just because a law has been passed doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be reviewed with the aim of determining that there is a better way to deal with an issue, particularly in education,” Watson said. by voting in favor of the adoption of the by-law.
Monday’s hearing lasted three hours. Public comments were given by representatives of charter schools and public schools, supporting organizations from both as well as a panel of PDE officials, including Secretary Noe Ortega.
Bedwick, the chairman of the board, said he hopes PDE will work with charter schools and cyber charter schools as regulations are implemented to ensure the changes are beneficial. .
“I don’t believe there will be any substantial negative consequences. If I did, I wouldn’t vote the way I did,” Bedwick said.
Democrats on the respective House and Senate Education Committees favor the regulations — the first passed since the state charter school law was enacted in 1997.
State Rep. Mark Longietti, D-7, Hermitage, minority chairman of the House Education Committee, expressed support for the new regulations last week.
“They are clear, reasonable, and in the best interests of Pennsylvania ratepayers,” Longietti said.
Republicans on those committees oppose it on the grounds that the regulations would allegedly exceed the authority of the PDE and would have to be passed by statute.
Republicans on both education committees voted last week to ask the IRRC to reject the proposed rulebook.
“These issues are clearly so cross-cutting and important that this is clearly a matter reserved for the Legislative Assembly,” Soroko said in his dissenting vote.