Daily Local News (West Chester, PA)
“Nothing ever changes”
More than 90% of Pennsylvania school boards have passed a resolution urging the General Assembly to take action to alter the way charter schools are funded and to impose stricter accountability and transparency rules.
Last month, legislators and advocates gathered in the Capitol Rotunda to call for action on what school leaders identified as the biggest source of public pressure: charter school tuition bills.
“We are not advocating for the elimination or abolishment of charter schools,” said David Schaap, president of Pennsylvania School Boards Association and veteran Allegheny County school board member. “However we are asking that school districts and local taxpayers pay fairly for the costs of providing a charter school education and for greater accountability and transparency of charter schools.”
Districts spent more than $2.6 billion on charter school payments in 2020-21 with $1 billion going to cybercharter schools, which deliver education online.
The school leaders and advocates called for more accountability and transparency from these independently operated public schools as well as a different funding system to avoid what they see as overpayments by district schools to charter schools.
Pennsylvania’s charter school law has changed little in the 26 years it has been on the books but it’s not for lack of trying.
But as time marches on, the number of school districts complaining continues to grow, with charter school tuition payments taking a bigger bite out of district budgets.
The law requires school districts to make tuition payments to charter schools based on what a district spends to educate one of its own students, minus debt service, transportation, facilities improvements and other related costs.
With districts spending varying amounts to educate its students, this funding system can result in one school district paying almost $15,000 more to a charter school than the rate another district pays.
The special education formula for distributing state funding to school districts establishes three tiers of aid based on the intensity of services a student with special needs requires.
That same formula does not apply to charter schools, which is another area of complaint for districts, amid claims that charter schools were paid more than $100 million for special education services in 2014-15 than what charter schools reported spending to provide them.
Rep. Joe Ciresi, D-Montgomery County, compared the General Assembly’s handling this issue to the movie “Groundhog Day” where nothing ever changes. But over the past 26 years, the calls for reform have become more widespread.
Now, he said almost every representative and senator has a school district that passed a resolution “telling them it’s time to reform charters and cyber char
ters. At what point do we take this up?”
Rob Gleason, a former Pennsylvania Republican Party chairman and now a Cambria County school board member, called on Republican lawmakers to support charter school reforms. Over the years, GOP lawmakers have shown resistance toward reforms that they believe could curb the growth of this school choice option.
He said charter schools do not have elected school boards and are not required to have board representation from the community they serve.
They can contract with a for-profit company to run their school. Once they do, he said, the public loses its ability to see how the for-profit company spends the taxpayer dollars.
“This results in locally elected school directors being forced to either raise taxes on our friends and neighbors or cutting the programs and services we’re able to provide to our own students to pay the tuition for students who choose to enroll in a charter school,” Gleason said. “This is not efficient use of tax dollars.”
Anne Clark, CEO of Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, picked apart the district advocates’ criticisms of charter schools, particularly when it comes to funding of charter schools. She also said that charter schools:
• Prioritize safety, relationships and innovation.
• Have independent audits.
• Participate in state testing.
• Have boards run by local leaders.
She added, “Our charter school leaders are ready to come to the table and have a transparent meaningful conversation to achieve equity for our students, families, and teachers.”