Wolf says charter school law ‘flawed’
He calls for changes to funding formulas that could ease Allentown School District deficit
Gov. Tom Wolf called Tuesday for changes in the special education and cybercharter funding formulas that, if adopted by a reluctant Legislature, would save Allentown and other financially strapped school districts millions.
Calling the charter school law “flawed” and “outdated,” Wolf told reporters in Allentown he also is instructing the state Department of Education to develop new regulations that would allow districts to limit student enrollment at charters that do not provide a “highquality” education and to boost oversight over charter school management companies.
Democrat Wolf’s call for changes in reimbursement formulas dictating how much public school districts must pay charter and cyberschools for students would save districts like Allentown, now facing a $6 million deficit, millions.
But passage in the Republican-controlled state Legislature, which created the charter school system, is far from guaranteed. Unless that happens, Allentown remains over a financial barrel, dependent on its charter schools to accept a voluntary 10% reduction in payments for the 2019-20 fiscal year.
Ana Meyers, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, called Wolf ’s proposals “blatant attacks on charter schools.” Meyers also claimed that Wolf could be abusing his authority through executive order and regulatory action.
“We will be watching how the governor implements his proposal in the coming days and weeks, and are prepared to challenge this administration in court if the Charter School Law is broken in any way,” Meyers said in a statement.
At Harrison-Morton Middle School, Wolf said he wants a “level playing field” for all charter and public schools. He pointed out some charters are performing well, but others aren’t, especially cyber charters. With the governor were Allentown School District leaders, state Reps. Pete Schweyer, DAllentown, and Steve Samuelson, D-Bethlehem, and others.
Neither Wolf nor Allentown Superintendent Thomas Parker would say how much money districts like Allentown would save under the governor’s proposals. Wolf said “millions.” Parker said the plan “will impact the (district’s) budget, but I can’t determine what that impact will be.”
Reps. Schweyer and Mike Schlossberg, both Allentown Democrats, said the formula changes, if enacted, would save Allentown “north of $10 million.”
Shortly after Wolf’s news conference in Allentown, state Sen. Pat Browne released a statement calling for a special session on charter school funding.
Besides proposing a legisla
tive change in the areas of special education funding and cybercharter tuition payments, Wolf is also asking the state Department of Education to develop regulations to:
Allow districts to limit student enrollment at charters that do not provide a high-quality, equitable education to students.
Require transparent charter school admission and enrollment policies that do not discriminate based on intellectual or athletic ability, race, gender or disability.
Ramp up oversight of charter school management companies.
Establish a clear process that requires charters to accurately document their costs and prevent charters from overcharging districts for educational services.
Speakers at Tuesday’s event blamed charter schools for school districts’ financial woes, including raising taxes. Parker pointed out at Tuesday’s event his district’s fund balance has gone from more than $30 million a few years ago to nothing. “We are at the cliff,” he said.
Bethlehem Area Superintendent Joseph Roy, a vocal critic of charters, began his comments with: “Can I get an amen?” Roy called charter school and traditional public school funding a “separate and unequal system.”
In recent weeks, Wolf has gone to battle with charter schools. Last week, he called charter schools “private.” Charter schools are publicly funded but operated by unelected boards.
There are 15 cybercharters in Pennsylvania. Cybercharters, which often perform low academically, draw the ire of districts that are forced to pay tuition to them but have no oversight. There has been much discussion surrounding charter school changes, especially the funding system for cybercharters.
Allentown paid more than $5 million in cyber tuition for the 2017-18 school year.
Nathan G. Mains, CEO of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said in a statement: “We are glad the governor has recognized the crisis, which has developed in charter school funding, accountability, performance, and transparency, and applaud his announced intention to prioritize action to reform this sector of education.”
Wolf ’s news release says that “the Allentown School District’s structural budget deficit cannot be fixed without charter school reform.”
In June, Allentown passed a $341.8 million budget that was only balanced if charter schools agree to a tuition reduction.
Allentown has been facing financial issues for awhile. In April, the district told the school board it was almost $8 million short in the 2018-19 budget, mostly from spending more on salaries than expected.
After two contentious meetings that involved lengthy discussions, the school board ultimately decided to take out a $10 million loan to avert financial crisis.
But the 2019-20 budget still loomed with an initial deficit of $21 million. With Wolf’s proposal, that budget has been balanced.
Last year, the district initially faced a $28 million deficit for the 2018-19 budget, but was able to carve it down.
Lawmakers Browne, Schweyer and Schlossberg were instrumental in securing an extra $10 million for Allentown, no-strings attached.