By Peter L. DeCoursey
HARRISBURG (June 4) – When my pal John Micek at The Morning Call of Allentown last week asked Gov. Tom Corbett what bills he wanted to pass this month before signing the budget, the governor replied: “I’d be negotiating against myself if I started telling you what I really think we have to have. We’ll work with the Legislature on that. Obviously, I think there are some school reform bills we’ve been pushing. I’d like to see some of that get done.”
First of all, there are four big bill packages the governor or his surrogates have called on the Legislature to get done this month:
• A major corrections reform bill to cut sentences for non-violent offenders to lower the cost of prisons;
• A major reform of teacher evaluations to make them much stricter and more based on the performance of each year’s students, with student performance as 50 percent of the teacher grade;
• Reforming, regulating and providing more transparency for charter schools, and having the state, not local districts, regulate and approve the charters;
• Consolidating state business loan funds from the current hodge-podge into a streamlined, governor-controlled entity, run by Community and Economic Development Secretary Alan Walker.
SCHOOL REFORM: CHARTERS
On the two school reform bills, if you know their fate this June, tell me and that will make two of us.
House and Senate Republicans say charter school reform is stalled in the House over a simple dispute. Public school folks and many of their state representatives, GOP and Democratic, note that cyber charters get the same subsidy as schools that have physical buildings and equipment and think that is unfair, and that cybers should get less.
Also, charter schools can get more state money per special needs student than public schools can, since public schools are capped, and charters aren’t.
Public school groups say this is a big problem involving big money going to charters and cyber charters. Charter groups say lots of other factors make up for this, and if it is a problem, it is a little one, involving small sums of money compared to those spent per student in the worst school districts in the state, such as Philadelphia, Chester, Reading, etc.
So since nobody has studied the problem and calculated the dollars in a way with which everyone agrees, Senate Republicans and the governor’s office want a commission to study charter funding, report next fall and then the scope of the issue will be known. Then it can be dealt with next year.
But a sizeable group of Republicans in the House are against a commission and any delay, and want a fix now.
The question is how big is that group? And are they as willing, as House and Senate GOP leaders think they are, to block a charter reform bill until charter funding is cut? If that group is two-dozen or so, they don’t matter. There is about an equal number of House Democrats who love charters and will make up their votes. If that group, as some House GOP leaders believe, is 40 strong, then the bill ain’t goin’ nowhere until charter funding is cut.
How much should the cut be? Dunno. And this is where Corbett’s “Wait and See” style could hurt this bill’s chances of June passage. Former Governors Thornburgh, Ridge, Casey or Rendell would quickly assess this problem, decide if charters needed to be cut to assuage the House GOPers, pick a number and push.
Corbett is much more likely to wait and see what happens and give it time, and have the clock run out on him.
Particularly because he doesn’t want to cut charters, since he thinks that money should follow the kid, not be considered the school district’s money. If the kid is going to a charter, says Corbett, so should his subsidy.
And that is not only the unpalatable dish he will have to swallow on this issue: the House Republicans don’t want to let the state regulate, authorize and monitor charters, taking that power from local school districts.
Corbett really wants a statewide authorizer, partly to keep districts from refusing to pay charters, and partly to provide a more welcoming atmosphere to big charter school companies. Corbett wants lots of competition in school districts. Districts sometimes make life as hard on charters as they can, fearing competition. Also, some charters suck and need to be put out of business. And others need regulation. And everyone hates their regulator – everyone.
So Corbett wants the state to assume oversight duties for charters.
But the House GOP so far is saying they can only pass a bill that gives the state power to control charters in the worst-performing 50 school districts.
That means dozens if not hundreds of charters, especially cyber-charters, will be left in the not-so-kind hands of the school districts they think hate them.
But it would allow the state to let the big charter companies into Philadelphia, Reading, and the other spots where they most want to go and can make the most money and have the biggest impact.
So will Corbett find a way to reduce the ranks of the House Republicans who want to take funds from the charters? Or will he try to find some token charter funding formula reduction to assuage them.
Or will he decide that 10 percent oversight and making charters lose money he is not sure they should lose is not a good enough deal?
It is just not clear that his wait-and-see style will break through these two barriers in 26 days.
Teacher evaluations are simpler: if he demands them and won’t take no for an answer, he will likely get them. If he takes no for an answer to get his Secret Shell Shale Subsidy or some budget concessions, he won’t get charter reform or teacher evaluations.
Plus, he has had trouble closing deals that get disclosed in public, and when he has to work with the Legislature.
THE CHAIRMEN WEIGH IN
House Education Committee Chairman Paul Clymer, R-Bucks, says Corbett and the House are ready to pass the bills to make important improvements in education. He believes the commission will be approved, a compromise will be reached on oversight, and teacher evaluations will be approved in June.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Jeff Piccola, R-Dauphin, a fan of the teacher evaluation and charter reform bills, said: “Oh, they will pass the Senate if they ever get here. But the House has had that [bill] language since late last year. If it is hasn’t moved by now, I don’t know why it would happen in June. I haven’t heard anything from the administration on this in months.”
In fact, Piccola suggested to Education Secretary Ron Tomalis last fall, by letter, that Tomalis simply study the charter funding issue, issue a report and explain what, if any, funding issue there is.
“I don’t think there is a problem, and I don’t think I would vote to reduce their formula, but the secretary could have done that by now,” Piccola said. Instead, I never even heard from him about that idea.
“So we proposed the commission and the House doesn’t seem to like that.”
Tomalis and his staff did not respond to multiple requests for comment over a two-week period.
On charter reform, Piccola said: “No, I haven’t seen any substantial progress on a charter school bill. If they are working hard on that,” as some advocates say they are, “it never got to me.”
Asked if he is surprised that the governor’s efforts to pass education have been so quiet, Piccola deplored “their lack of effort on issues that we think are important and that the governor has said, a few times, are important. Am I surprised by what they have done? No. I am not surprised.
“The governor has to make it quite clear that these are bills that have to be passed into law before the budget is signed into law. Haven’t seen that yet.”
LOANS AND CORRECTIONS
The loan plan has the longest odds to get done this month.
House Republicans are mad at the Commonwealth Finance Authority and its Walker-subordinate staff for a series of things, mostly having to do with making pragmatic rather than fiscally-conservative decisions.
It is clear the House GOP will stop voting no on some CFA stuff once Walker and others fix the problems they perceive. That is unlikely to happen fast, and even if it did, the Legislature is in no hurry to take several boards over which they they have varying levels of influence, and giving that influence away to Walker and Corbett.
So that is the least likely of the June add-ons that the administration, or at least Walker, is pushing to get done with the budget.
The most likely to be approved appears to be the corrections package.
It’s not clear whether 70- or 80- or 90-percent of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative survives into the final bill. But essentially the budget is already counting on the savings the bill promises over several years, so a bill that is at least kin to the sweeping current proposal will likely pass.
The House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday could clear things up a bit as it intends to vote on Senate Bill 100, a bill already containing several corrections reforms. It is believed an amendment will be offered during a planned Tuesday committee meeting to add more, maybe all, of the JRI.
However, word late last week indicated negotiations were ongoing as to whether an amendment would be offered and what would be in that amendment. The folks who usually neuter this kind of bill – the county district attorneys – who don’t like to let people out of prison whom they just put in, are not opposed to Senate Bill 100 as written, or the ideas within the JRI. However, as some insiders have noted, the devil is always in the details, and it’s not clear where the DAs are on those details as they were still being worked out heading into the weekend.
We will have more coverage of that issue in coming weeks.