Charter reform elusive in Pennsylvania

Charter reform elusive in Pennsylvania

(Pa.) Critics of the heavy financial burden charter schools impose on traditional districts in Pennsylvania are penning new oversight legislation pending before lawmakers as ‘watered-down.’

Under state law, charters receive annual tuition payments from districts based on operating costs and student attendance. In 2016, the statewide tuition payment to charters was more than $1.5 billion—a payment that does not take into account the ability of the district to afford the tuition.

A bill introduced late last year aimed to curtail the cost districts shoulder for online-charters—one of the fastest-growing segments of the charter movement in Pennsylvania—but it failed to gain support.

Since then, Sen. Patrick Browne offered SB 806, which would empower a new charter school commission to look more closely at charter school costs, hold hearings and make recommendations to the Legislature on how to better manage charter school costs.

Less than 8 percent of Pennsylvania’s 1.7 million K-12 students attend one of the state’s 179 charter schools but that share is growing, especially in the state’s big urban areas.

The cost of supporting those charters is also growing, and of particular concern are the state’s 15 online charters, which account for 35,000 of the 139,000 students enrolled in charters overall.

One of the key problems, according to a 2018 report from the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, is that the tuition payment districts must make to charters includes a number of costs that are generally not reflected in the operating costs of most charters.

Such items as gifted student services, after-school programs and transportation are all part of the tuition payment even though most charters do not offer those services.

“In other words, the formula requires traditional  public schools to send more money to charter schools than is needed to operate their programs,” the PASA said. “The result is a windfall for charter schools and a deficit for traditional public schools.”

The school administrator’s group noted that the state’s charter school law is more than 20 years old and needs to be updated. Among other changes the PASA has called for:

  • A new funding formula for charter schools that better reflects their actual costs.
  • A requirement that educators in charter schools must meet the same certification requirements as educators in traditional public schools.
  • Imposition of the same accountability evaluations of charters as currently imposed on traditional public schools.

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