Op/ed: Change funding for charter schools

In the upcoming months, school districts will prepare budgets for the next fiscal year and make the hard decision about whether to increase property taxes to deal with rising costs.

One of the fastest-growing costs for all school districts is charter schools—publicly funded, privately operated schools that offer education wholly online or at a site within a community. School districts pay 100 percent of charter school tuition bills, and rapidly increasing tuition payments are a top reason that property taxes continue to rise. Although charter school students represent only 8 percent of all public school students, in 2017-18, 37 cents of every new property tax dollar raised was sent to a charter or cyber charter school.

Pennsylvania taxpayers are spending more than $1.8 billion on tuition bills for students to attend charter and online cyber charter schools. Tuition rates are set by the state, but flawed calculations in Pennsylvania’s 22-year-old charter school law mandate payments well beyond the cost to educate a child. After more than 20 years, the time has come to retool charter funding to bring payments in line with the costs, eliminate questionable and wasteful spending by charters, and bring property tax increases under control.

Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed a funding plan that will do just that: eliminate overpayments and provide $280 million in savings to school districts while providing sufficient funding to allow charter schools to appropriately serve students. Wolf’s proposal should receive the enthusiastic support of Pennsylvania taxpayers and state lawmakers alike.

Taxpayers are not well served under the current system. Cyber charter schools, which educate students at home on a computer, receive the same payment rate as brick-and-mortar charter schools, despite having no buildings, no janitorial staff, no cafeteria, and much higher student-teacher ratios.

Not surprisingly, cyber charter schools are awash in excess funding, so money intended to educate children is instead wasted on billboards, TV commercials, and internet advertisements for cyber schools. Cybers also pay considerable amounts to public relations firms, lobbyists, and the CEOs and shareholders of private management companies. This is why national organizations that promote charter schools have urged states to change laws and rein in cyber charters.

Gov. Wolf has proposed a flat tuition rate of $9,500 for students who attend cyber charter schools, a generous amount totaling almost twice the cost of a district-run cyber program. This would save $133 million.

Charter schools are also exempt from the Fair Funding Formula for special education payments. It’s time to close that loophole.

School districts receive state special education funding based on the cost of the services that students need, whether it is a half-hour of speech therapy weekly or a full-time aide. Charter schools receive a flat payment based on the schools’ average costs, so the charter receives the same payment regardless of how much they spend providing services. The formula provides millions in excess funding to charter schools and creates a financial incentive for them to provide more students with speech therapy, while not providing sufficiently for students with significant needs who want to attend the charter school. That’s not fair.

Gov. Wolf’s proposal would apply the special education Fair Funding Formula to all schools. If enacted, school districts will save $147 million each year and the perverse financial incentive for charters to enroll only students who need low-cost services would be eliminated.

These proposals would save school districts $280 million, end the excessive profiteering that has occurred in the charter sector, reduce pressure on property taxes, and help ensure school districts are able to provide the resources necessary for all students to succeed. They deserve our support.

Susan Spicka, Executive Director,
Education Voters of PA

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