HARRISBURG — Gov. Josh Shapiro nominated new members this week to the state board responsible for reviewing charter school appeals, shaking up the little-known panel with a move that could potentially lead to more school choice options in Pennsylvania.
The seven-member Charter Appeals Board is responsible for reconsidering charter school applications that are denied by local school districts. In Pennsylvania, charter schools are funded by their school districts, creating tension when new charters seek approval from school boards to open. The board has been controversial: Traditional public school advocates object to its ability to circumvent local school board decisions, while charter advocates see it as essential to ensure due process.
Yet Republicans and charter school advocates have criticized the Charter Appeals Board, often called the CAB, in recent years for its inefficiency. The board had a number of vacant seats, two due to a dispute between former Gov. Tom Wolf and Senate Republicans, and three more left open by expiring terms.
Some of Shapiro’s appointees, who must be approved by the GOP-controlled Senate, appear to be open to charter schools. His picks will also fill out the board, allowing it to hear more cases.
Shapiro, a Democrat, was the center of a school-choice controversy earlier this year, after he vetoed a private-school voucher program he helped design with Senate Republicans. Shapiro has been a proponent of allowing students to attend whatever school — public, private, or charter — works best for them. That’s a stance that’s more popular with the GOP than the governor’s own party, but he’s said that position makes sense because the state is in the process of redesigning a school funding system that a judge ruled unconstitutional.
The appointments come a few months after Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) told The Inquirer that Senate Republicans struck a deal with Shapiro to change the makeup of the Charter Appeals Board, convincing her to end the state budget impasse that began over the vetoed voucher program.
Manuel Bonder, Shapiro’s press secretary, said in a statement Thursday that the governor believes “all boards and commissions, including this one, should operate efficiently and at full capacity.”
The new appointees are:
Carol Aichele, of Malvern, who serves on the state Board of Education and was Pennsylvania’s secretary of state during former Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration.
Don Alexander, a teacher at Carlynton School District outside of Pittsburgh.
Lisa Kennedy, vice president of the city of York school board.
Helena Liddle, an academic adviser at the Community College of Allegheny County.
Thomas Killion, a former Republican state senator from Delaware County, who is being appointed to a second term on the board.
Jennifer Faustman, the CEO of Belmont Charter Schools in Philadelphia, will remain on the board, since her term doesn’t expire until 2025. Pennsylvania’s Education Secretary Khalid Mumin is the seventh member.
Shapiro did not renominate Lancaster County public school teacher Stacey Marten or former Central Bucks School District board member Jodi Schwartz, terms whose expired last year.
Anne Clark, the CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said she was encouraged by the appointment. She said the group was cited by the US Department of Education as part of monitoring for a federal grant to expand charter schools because of the board’s vacancies and a backlog of appeals cases.
“If you’re the district and there’s not a full CAB you may say ‘No’ to everyone that applies, regardless if it’s a quality charter or not,” Clark said. “The charter appeals process is broken. My greatest hope is that now that there’s a full CAB, our local authorizing districts will do a better job of being really fair and equitable.”
An ongoing debate over charter schools in Pa.
All of Pennsylvania’s charter schools are public schools, meaning they receive money from their school districts. Some traditional public school advocates have argued that this drives much-needed resources away from school districts to sometimes ineffective learning institutions, such as cyber charter schools, which often have the lowest test scores.
School choice is a complicated issue for Democrats, who often get support from teachers’ unions and ideologically oppose diverting tax dollars to private or charter schools. It’s even more complex for some Democrats in Philadelphia, where student achievement ranks near the bottom of all urban districts nationwide, and where some politicians see charter schools as a means of helping students have the opportunity to succeed.
Each appointee needs to be approved by a majority of the GOP-controlled Senate.
Sen. Lindsey Williams (D., Allegheny), the Democratic chair of the Senate education committee, said she’s requested meetings with each of the appointees to inform her vote and will keep an “open mind” about each of them.
In a September letter to Shapiro, nine public education advocacy groups asked Shapiro to reappoint all existing members to additional terms.
Susan Spicka, the executive director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania and one of the letter’s signers, said in a statement Thursday that it was disappointing Shapiro did not reappoint those “who have been doing good, hard work ensuring that the CAB is functioning at a high level.”
“If during the vetting process it becomes clear that any nominee has an ideological agenda, that person’s name should be immediately pulled from consideration,” Spicka said. ”Any appearance that this board is being rigged in favor of the charter industry would undermine the integrity of the entire board and the decisions it issues.”
Ward, the top Republican in the state Senate, said in a statement that she was optimistic about Shapiro’s choices for the board, and noted that conversations are still ongoing “to address the educational needs of Pennsylvania students.”
Staff writer Maddie Hanna contributed to this article.