Pennsylvania's Charter School system was established by Act 22 in 1997. Since that time, over one hundred and twenty public charter schools serving more than 60,000 students have begun operating in Pennsylvania. Almost a dozen of these charter schools are cyber charter schools which serve more than 17,000 students.
According to Act 22, Pennsylvania's charter school system is intended to:
o Improve pupil learning;
o Increase learning opportunities for all pupils;
o Encourage the use of different and innovative teaching methods;
o Create new professional opportunities for teachers, including the opportunity to be responsible for the learning program at the school site;
o Provide parents and pupils with expanded choices in the types of educational opportunities that are available within the public school system; and
o Hold the schools established under the act accountable for meeting measurable academic standards and provide the school with a method to establish accountability systems
If the local school district denies the application, the applicant has sixty days to gather signatures from two percent of the adults in the community or 1,000 adults, whichever is less. The petition for appeal and the signatures are then presented to the local Court of Common Pleas for a hearing. The Court of Common Pleas does not decide the Starting a new charter school in Pennsylvania is a resource-intensive enterprise. Before ever opening a charter school, its organizers must spend a considerable amount of time planning and drafting the charter application and its supporting material. Preparing the application will require input from individuals with skill and experience in education methods, financial management, and school administration. These individuals will need the assistance
Financial assistance is available through U.S. Department of Education grants that are awarded by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The grants are intended to assist in meeting planning needs up to eighteen months preceding the charter's school's opening. Applicants can apply for up to $50,000 in grant money at this stage. Once the charter school has been authorized, additional grants of up to $300,000 are available to assist with the implementation of the charter school's program. The grants are awarded through a competitive process and graded by earning points for various components of the application and supporting materials. Thorough preparation of the grant application is crucial both to the approval and the amount of the grant received.
Submitting the Application
Once the charter school application is prepared, it is submitted to the local school district where the charter school plans to operate. The Charter School Law provides specific time lines for the application process. Careful thought must be given to the amount of time that may be required for approval and how this will affect the target start date for the new charter school.
Charter school applications are approved or denied by a majority vote of the chartering district's board. The charter school applicant must first demonstrate that it has sustainable support from teachers, parents, other community members and students. Typically, the applicant will attempt to establish this support by gathering signed petitions, letters and written testimonials, pre-enrollments, and preparation of oral testimony for presentation to the local school district.
The applicant must also demonstrate that the charter is capable of providing a comprehensive learning experience to its students. This will require detailed plans for the new school curriculum, its physical facilities, and management structure.
The applicant must also provide information on a number of technical requirements listed in the statute, including but not limited to: governance structure; admissions policies; discipline policies; student assessment methods; and criminal history reports.
Finally, the applicant must demonstrate the extant to which the proposed charter school will serve as a model for other public schools. To large extent, proof of this final criterion will depend upon the mission and goals of the charter school and how those will make it different from school choices which already exist for students.
Once an application has been submitted, the local school district has forty-five days to hold at least one public hearing on the application. Applicants should be prepared to present testimony and answer all inquiries the district may pose at the public hearing. Within seventy-five days of the first public hearing, the local school district must either grant or deny the charter.
Court of Common Pleas
If the local school district denies the application, the applicant has sixty days to gather signatures from two percent of the adults in the community or 1,000 adults, whichever is less. The petition for appeal and the signatures are then presented to the local Court of Common Pleas for a hearing. The Court of Common Pleas does not decide the merits of the appeal. It only rules on the sufficiency of the petition. Provided the petition is deemed sufficient, the Court of Common Pleas forwards it to the state's Charter School Appeal Board ("CAB").
The CAB will then require the local school district to produce the certified record of the proceedings before the district and assign a hearing officer to the case. This hearing officer holds pre-hearing conferences with counsel for both the district and the charter school to determine if either party may supplement the record and, if necessary, conducts an additional evidentiary hearing. This hearing process is an expedited affair as the hearing officer must certify the final record within thirty days of the CAB's acceptance of the appeal.
The hearing officer will also generate a draft adjudication for consideration by the CAB. The CAB will then hold a public hearing and vote whether to accept or reject the appeal. This vote is followed by a written decision from the CAB. If the CAB overturns the school district's denial of the charter school application, the school district must grant the charter.