Pa. Governor Orders Up New Charter Oversight Office to Focus on Virtual Schools—but That’s Not All
When Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf unexpectedly announced the creation of a new division in the state education department aimed at assisting and improving charter schools, it came as a surprise to both charter advocates and skeptics. The announcement caught them off guard, and they had little knowledge of what to expect from this new division.
This development came at a time when Pennsylvania’s charter school sector was under intense scrutiny. The scrutiny was partly a result of a John Oliver sketch on HBO’s Last Week Tonight, which shed light on fraud and financial mismanagement within charter schools, including those in Pennsylvania. Additionally, a report by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association highlighted the need for stricter accountability and transparency in charter schools.
Furthermore, the state’s auditor general, a prominent skeptic in the debate surrounding charter schools, released an audit criticising Pennsylvania’s flawed charter school law and the state education department’s inconsistent and confusing process for handling payment disputes between charter schools and local districts.
However, the incident that perhaps had the most relevance to the new division’s focus was a federal tax fraud case. On the same day that the governor’s office announced the changes to the education department, the founder and former CEO of an online charter school in Pennsylvania pleaded guilty to embezzling over $8 million from the school.
According to Executive Deputy Secretary David Volkman, the primary objective of the new division will be to enhance accountability for Pennsylvania’s 14 virtual charter schools, which are authorised and overseen by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Recognising the state’s budget crisis last year, which left school districts in financial distress, the department repurposed four vacant positions to create this division. Their work is set to begin in January.
Volkman explained that one of their initiatives will involve more rigorous monitoring of cyber schools by physically visiting their administrative offices. This move aligns with the growing national scrutiny of online education options. Advocates for traditional brick-and-mortar charter schools in Pennsylvania have worked hard to differentiate themselves from their online counterparts, and a coalition of national charter school advocacy groups recently expressed concerns over poor performance at virtual schools.
This new division will also impact the operations of Pennsylvania’s nearly 180 brick-and-mortar charters, which are authorised by local school districts. It will provide enhanced technical assistance to charters in areas such as instructional best practices and professional development for teachers.
For charter advocates, any increase in oversight from an administration that has been critical of the sector raises concerns. Robert Fayfich, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, expressed frustration over the lack of consultation with him or members of the general assembly before creating the charter school division. Fayfich believes that the administration has been undermining the viability of charter schools and has doubts about whether this division will truly benefit charter schools or the parents of charter school students.
Tim Eller, executive director of the Keystone Alliance for Public Charter Schools, shares a similar sentiment. Eller, who previously worked for the state education department under former Governor Tom Corbett, believes that the state’s charter law already holds charter schools accountable, and he views this new division as unnecessary bureaucracy. According to Eller, the role of overseeing accountability for brick-and-mortar charter schools lies with the local school district and not the education department. If the governor and education department want to change the accountability and oversight mechanism for charters, they should follow the legislative process.
Despite his ongoing support for reforms to Pennsylvania’s charter school law, which is currently being considered by the state legislature, Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale is optimistic about the new division. DePasquale had previously described the state’s charter law as the worst in the nation and conducted an audit that exposed bureaucratic incompetence in the education department’s appeals process for resolving payment disputes between charter schools and districts. The education department maintains that it did not act unlawfully or incorrectly in these matters.
"I do not oppose well-performing charter schools. My main objective is to address the issue of underperforming schools, without any bias towards their type. As the auditor general, I have also held traditional public schools accountable. If we can concentrate on finding common ground, we can weed out these troublesome individuals from the education system. Ultimately, this will result in positive outcomes for all children in the entire state."