BY TONY WEST/ You know a political movement has arrived when opponents take drastic steps to spike it.
Barely 10 years old in Pennsylvania, charter schools have arrived as a threat so potent that Gov. Ed Rendell vetoed a bipartisan omnibus education bill, solely because one of its provisions might give a tax break to some charter-school real estate.
The Governor’s veto triggered outrage in the General Assembly. Advocates for the bill, HB 101, vowed to redouble their efforts to pass it after the election next week.
Lobbying for the veto was a coalition of public school districts across the state, including Philadelphia’s. Mayor Michael Nutter backed them up, writing to the Governor, “I understand there are provisions of this bill that you may support. The State should not, however, be granting special tax exemptions for lessors of land to charter schools that do not already qualify under existing exemptions.”
“The Governor gets an F for this decision,” responded State Rep. James Roebuck, who chairs the House Education Committee and drafted the measure.
At issue is whether a business that rents space to a charter school, but pays taxes on its building, should be able to convert itself into a nonprofit corporation and thereby become exempt from the real-estate tax.
No, said Philadelphia School District Deputy Superintendent and CEO Leroy Nunery II. Writing to Rendell, Nunery said, “Based on the information known to the School District at this time, there is a potential significant revenue loss to the City of Philadelphia and, by extension, The School District … if this Bill becomes law.”
Proponents of HB 101 scoffed at this claim, at least currently. They said it would apply to only three charter schools around the state, none of them in Philadelphia.
Neither the Mayor’s Office nor the School District was able to provide specific financial information about this feared revenue loss.
Major legislation like this is rarely vetoed by any Governor, simply for one of its provisions – especially one of such small scale. It is a little like seeing the President veto the annual defense appropriations bill because he doesn’t like a particular destroyer.
Also unusual, Roebuck noted, was the speed and stealth with which the attack on charter schools was mounted. The Governor never discussed his concern with Roebuck throughout a year of lawmaking and did not even call him personally to tell him he would veto the bill. The letters by Nunery and Nutter which urged the veto were written only last Thursday and Friday.
Rendell cited a concern this tax-abatement provision might be unconstitutional as one reason for vetoing the bill. But Roebuck responded, “That is very much in doubt, and if a court had struck down that one section, the rest of the bill would have survived. The Governor should have let it be resolved in the courts rather than kill these important educational reforms.”
Among those reforms are steps to revise the State’s school-violence reporting, to create economic-education and personal financial-literacy programs, to combat dating violence, and to control skyrocketing college-textbook prices.
As for the question of the loss of tax revenue, Roebuck scoffed, “Public-school real estate is already exempt from taxation. A school is a school.”
State Sen. Anthony Williams called Roebuck’s legislation, which was crafted in tandem with State Sen. Jeffrey Piccola (R-Dauphin), “historic.” “These two men come not just from different parties, but with radically different ideologies,” Williams explained. “Compromise is not normal in these times. A lot of work by a lot of people went into this bill.”
The measure passed the Senate unanimously and cruised through the House 180-19.
While charter-school real estate may be a small issue today, Rendell’s move left no doubt the overall growth of charter schools casts a large shadow over the future of public schools.
There are now 63 charter schools in Philadelphia, serving 32,000 students. The money that pays for charter schools is taken from the overall public-school budget, so it is a zero-sum game for the School District: Every added pupil in a charter school means that much less funding for School District operations, even though the School District retains nebulous oversight – but little operational input – into its upstart rivals.
It is no wonder, then, the School District has resisted the growth of charters in other ways. Last Friday, for instance, Walter Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School in North Philadelphia won an injunction in court that removed a cap placed by the School District on its student-body size.
“The School District does not want the charter-school movement to come to fruition,” said Sultan Ashley-Shah, a spokesman for WPLLCCS. “There is a faction within it that does not want the charter schools to grow. They are afraid of an exodus from their system.”
Not all public-school advocates are opposed to charter schools. Former Superintendent Paul Vallas was friendly to charter schools, as was former School Reform Commission Chairwoman Sandra Dungee-Glenn.
The current Superintendent Diane Ackerman has been much cooler to them, charter-school supporters say. And the Rendell Administration never warmed up to them. A core opponent is the Governor’s Secretary of Policy & Planning Donna Cooper, a secretive backstage power who, in the eyes of many, always pulled the strings on Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak. Zahorchak quit earlier this year, leaving Thomas Gluck as acting secretary for the waning days of the Rendell Administration. There is no way Rendell would have vetoed HB 101 against Cooper’s wishes.
Diane Castelbuono, who now heads the city’s Office of Charter Schools, is a recent alumna of Rendell’s Dept. of Education.
Rightly or wrongly, it may soon be too late for charter-school foes to roll back this new form of public education. The families of charter-school students tend to be motivated. They now form a political special interest of their own and they have the will to lobby for their ends.
Rendell has consistently presented himself as Pennsylvania’s “education Governor.” Now, in the waning days of his term, he cannot lay claim to that title any longer, charged Roebuck.
Williams, who ran for the Democrat nomination for Governor last spring, is an ardent advocate of school choice – a broad umbrella that includes charter schools. He expressed himself “surprised and disappointed” by the Governor’s veto.
“In the last few weeks, Rendell has vetoed a number of bills – more than in his preceding two terms,” Williams commented. “I understand this is part of the armament of leaving office.”
The large majorities that passed HB 101 would permit the General Assembly to override the Governor’s veto, if that turbulent body can organize itself to do so after the General Election. The Senate will definitely return to session; it is less clear if the House will take action.
Williams affirmed, however, this education-reform measure is far from dead. “I think we’ll take another bite at that apple,” he said.