Where is the promised leadership on school choice in Pennsylvania?

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett promised a school-choice juggernaut in the Keystone State when he campaigned for office two years ago. Not only has no crusade has ever come to pass, Corbett and the GOP-led state assembly let a modest charter school reform bill languish in the House recently without a vote. This should have been an opportunity for the state’s executive and legislative leadership to pay more than lip service to education reform. But, again, they failed.

This should have been an opportunity for the state’s executive and legislative leadership to pay more than lip service to education reform.

What’s worse, the bill the House killed had already been weakened through compromise. The effort to create an independent state board to authorize charters was removed to accommodate complaints for local school boards, which—with the exception of virtual schools—remain the sole charter authorizers in Pennsylvania. What was left was a commission to recommend a smarter funding strategy for charters, a provision to award high-performing charter schools with a ten-year  contract (up from five), an application of the state’s Ethics Act to charters, and a move to allow charter networks to oversee multiple schools with one board, among other things.

Many states have already adopted one or more of these strategies. And, it should be noted, that one of the more controversial elements of this legislation was the commission that could only recommend to the state assembly different funding measures for charters. Legislators were concerned that the commission was “stacked with pro-charter people,” said the Republican chair of the House Education Committee.

This is a failure of leadership that was supposed to create the conditions for school choice in a state that had heightened the hopes of education reformers. And this dereliction isn’t new. Just one year ago, Wall Street Journal columnist William McGurn criticized Corbett and Republican leaders for allowing a promised voucher plan to languish (the state assembly eventually passed a modest tax credit scholarship for low-income kids). But McGurn’s more piercing commentary remains apt today: “The next time some Republican wonders why the African-American community doesn’t just come to its senses and start to vote the GOP ticket, point him to Pennsylvania.”

Nothing in this bill would have upended the status quo, but it contained elements that may have led to real benefits for kids, particularly those who are disadvantaged. There is a documented disparity of funding between charter schools and district schools in Pennsylvania, therefore a state panel charged with finding ways to eliminate that disparity, as this legislation would have done, would have treated all public school students equally. Charter networks like KIPP want to open more schools and operate them with a single board with oversight that’s been proven to work, and this legislation would have empowered such a “multiple charter school organization.” But no more.

The Philadelphia Inquirer noted that the bill had passed the Senate earlier with bipartisan support and by a ratio of more than 2 to 1. The House later let the clock run out without taking a vote. This is embarrassing for the Corbett administration. It’s now become hard to treat the governor’s statements on education reform as more than simple platitudes.

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