Charter school costs have created a ‘crisis in education’
For years, traditional public school districts have come to Harrisburg concerned about the costs of charter and cybercharter education. Local property taxes continued to increase, but districts had little to show for it as they were sending that money directly to the charter schools.
Harrisburg has been slow to address the problem. So slow that we hit a crisis in education. It’s time to fix the problem; fix it now: to solve the funding crisis, to demand accountability and to see the results.
Charters started as a means of improved innovation and educational outcomes. Twenty-two years into the experiment, the results are mixed. Sure, there are success stories of children who thrived in these alternative settings, and we applaud those. But we also have to ask: At what cost?
Case in point: The Bensalem School District. It’s a top-notch school district and ground zero for the charter school funding debate. Like most districts, Bensalem has seen staggering increases in charter, special education and pension costs. These increases have forced districts to cut programs, raise taxes and deplete fund balances.
In the last decade, Bensalem’s payments to charter schools have quadrupled — and yet outside of
these large cost drivers, their actual spending has increased on average by less than 1% each year. Their tax increases are going to fund charter schools.
While Bensalem is a good steward of its resources, how can it continue a practice that will lead to financial failure for our students and community?
If this charter school funding fiasco can cripple Bensalem, none of the other 499 school districts are immune and Harrisburg is finally seeing those districts hit the financial cliff. For years, I have watched charter proposals that address “charter reform,” but fail to talk about the underlying problem of funding.
This legislative session I put together a package of bills to address those issues in a fair and responsible manner. I’m not looking to close charter schools, but I do want students to be funded equally. I want commonsense approaches that direct funding in a logical manner.
My legislation, Senate Bill 735 through Senate Bill 740, seeks to provide that funding reform. Collectively, they address special education costs based on actual student data. They create separate funding calculations for charter and cybercharter schools because they are different and have different cost drivers. They establish a clear and consistent tuition payment process instead of using the current system plagued by legal challenges. Lastly, if all else fails, it would allow school districts with extremely high charter and cybercharter costs to be reimbursed from the state for their expenditures.
The debate on charters and cybercharters has reached perfect storm status. We finally have enough voices in Harrisburg to address a problem 22 years in the making.
I look forward to working with Gov. Wolf, Sen. Pat Browne, Sen. Wayne Langerholc, and others who are willing to stand up for a fair system of education funding for all of our public schools. We must act now before it is too late.
Tommy Tomlinson is a Republican state senator representing Bucks County.
The high school library of the Lehigh Valley Academy Regional Charter School in 2017.