Char­ter school costs have cre­ated a ‘cri­sis in ed­u­ca­tion’

The Morning Call - - TOWN SQUARE -

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.

APRIL BARTHOLOME­W/THE MORN­ING CALL

The high school li­brary of the Le­high Val­ley Academy Re­gional Char­ter School in 2017.

Tommy Tom­lin­son

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