Capitolwire: Unions, school boards and House GOP uproar derail charter school reform.

By Peter L. DeCoursey & Kevin Zwick
Staff Writers
Capitolwire

HARRISBURG (Oct. 18) – A deal between Republican legislative leaders and Gov. Tom Corbett to pass a compromise charter reform bill fell apart Wednesday due to suspicions by members of House GOP leaders and aggressive lobbying by education groups.

Administration officials and Senate GOP leaders were at a loss to explain what had happened.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, said after 9 p.m. Wednesday he had not heard the deal had fell apart until “about five minutes ago when they gaveled out.”

“There was no question that there was an agreement, it was an agreed amendment, I haven’t heard from House leadership what the problem was or why the bill was not run,” Pileggi said. “I would hope to hear something from them.”

One negotiator said: “It was a mix of a mishandled issue in the House, the PSEA and school boards and there are folks in the House who are just pissed at the Senate.”

House Speaker Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney said the agreement fell apart due to multiple issues that could not be fixed in the available time.

“There were so many moving parts between the various funding issue with the cyber charters, some of issues with bricks and mortar charters, we just couldn’t build a consensus, between the House, the Senate and the governor’s office, to get it done,” Smith said.

He continued, “…When we came out of caucus at 7:30-8 o’clock is when I made a last pitch to people that, understand, this bill didn’t solve all the problems. It wasn’t total reform. We accept that. But we needed to make this modest step forward in order to put us on solid footing coming into next June’s budget year.

“I guess it’s somewhere at that point that it became clear to me that we weren’t going to get this done. It’s disappointing to me, I will say that because I truly believe that it was a needed step in helping us to get to the harder-core reforms that I think people would like to see,” Smith said.

Pileggi said, “We negotiated starting back in June through the summer into the fall, had an agreement with the governor and the House Republican leadership. “But PSEA,” the state’s largest teachers union, “put on a strong push and it never came up for a vote. The PSEA and the PSBA were against the provisions that would allow charters to operate more efficiently and expand in their operations, other than that general philosophical objection, I don’t know what line or section or sub-paragraph caused the problem.

“This was a bill that is important to educational reform, important to the governor and important to the House Republican leadership and Senate Republican leadership. I’m very disappointed we’ll have to start that process again,” Pileggi said.

Smith responded: “I don’t think any momentum’s lost per se. … It’s all about getting to a point where a majority in the House, Senate and governor’s office are comfortable.”

Smith also said: “There’s no question that two, three weeks away from an election makes the votes tighten up a bit. Candidly, we had the votes for a bill that arguably had a little more reform in it to the charter issue that was passed by the House in June, so yeah, I guess it’s safe to say as you get this close to an election it makes people more cautious and they get a little more concerned that these are big bills that are complicated.”

While early estimates had been that 20 to 30 House Democrats would support the bill, Smith said only eight to 15 were ready to vote for it this week.

Smith also acknowledged that he and House leaders mishandled an issue in the bill that caused doubting members to think Smith was adding a funding program to his home county, Jefferson. Smith and other leaders said they had used wrong data in the state budget to fund Butler County Community College’s classes in Jefferson County, where Smith and Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, both live.

Scarnati said: “It was simply clarification language for an appropriation that was in the budget for Butler [County Community College] to have classes in Jefferson County.”

A technical drafting error was made in the fiscal code for that appropriation, Smith said, and this bill offered an opportunity to fix it.

“The hubbub about it was just a miscommunication in terms of explaining what it was so that people didn’t start getting suspicious. Their misread was that we were appropriating … a back-door appropriation to something specific,” Smith said. “But it was just what we’d agreed to in June. … It was just a failure to communicate.”

Between the teachers unions, the school boards association and this issue, it just became impossible to count to 102 votes, legislative leaders said.

Even after Senate GOP leaders agreed to put the appropriation for Butler County Community College classes in Jefferson County into budgetary reserve to save the bill, House leaders could not get the 90 or so House GOP votes they needed.

The bill, which passed the Senate 33-16 on Tuesday, omitted key provisions sought after by the governor when dueling charter reform bills were considered in late June.

One of those provisions left out of the proposal is a statewide authorizing board. Local school boards will retain authorizing power of charters under the bill.

The other provision that caused some disagreement between parties in June would have made it easier to convert school district buildings into charter schools.

Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) spokesman Wythe Keever said earlier Wednesday that the union focused on keeping the language dealing with the statewide authorizer and building conversion out of the bill. The union took a neutral stance on the new language amended to the bill and passed out of the Senate on Monday, he said.

The failure of the bill also means a Special Education Funding Commission and Charter School Funding commissions will not be created.

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