East Falls Local Article: Reform is Past Due for Charter Schools

In 1997, the charter school bill was signed into law.

Charter schools can be brick and mortar schools or can be a cyber school.  All are funded with state tax dollars.

Charter schools were designed to provide innovative educational alternatives for Pennsylvania students. Charters were designed to: improve pupil learning, increase educational opportunities for students, encourage innovative teaching methods, provide varied opportunities for teachers (including responsibility for the educational program), provide parents with educational choices, and meet measurable academic standards.

Charter schools are non-profit, public schools originally designed as an innovative educational alternative to traditional public schools. They are free of many of the mandates governing traditional public schools except for those mandates and laws related to nondiscrimination, health, safety, suspension/expulsion, academic assessments and federal special education law.

Charter schools can be created by a variety of entities, including community members, parents, teachers, businesspeople and non-religious colleges or universities.

Brick and mortar charter schools are authorized by the school district’s school board where the charter will be located.

A cyber charter school is an alternative type of charter school, authorized by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, that uses the Internet or other electronic/ digital method to provide instruction to students.

Charter schools must give preference to students currently residing in the local authorizing school district. Entry is awarded through a lottery system when more students apply than the charter school can accommodate. Students who do not reside in the local school district may be enrolled in the charter if space is available. Charter schools may also give preference to students with siblings currently attending the charter school. Charter schools must admit students regardless of any disability and cannot use a method of student selection that would be illegal in a traditional public-school.

Cyber charter schools may enroll students from anywhere in the state.

Currently, there are about 168,000 students enrolled in brick and mortar and cyber charters in the Commonwealth.

There is no set tuition rate for an individual charter or cyber charter school; the tuition payment is based on what each student’s home district costs were the previous year.  A charter or cyber charter school might receive tuition for one student in the amount of $12,000 and tuition of $18,000 for another student simply based on which school district the student lives in.

Reforms have long been discussed, and an attempt again this session is underway for reform. The funding reforms proposed in the Governor’s 2021-22 budget will save taxpayers about $229 million per year and are long overdue.

The Governor’s proposed 2021-2022 budget calls for applying the three-tiered special education funding formula, applied to traditional public schools, to charter schools, with funding increasing as the student’s need for special education services increases.

Currently charter schools receive a flat rate for special needs students, regardless of the degree of the special needs of the student. By applying the existing three-tiered formula used for traditional public schools, the Governor is eliminating the flat rate and proposing that charter schools be funded based on the degree of special needs.

Traditional public schools are funded in this manner for their special needs’ students, with funding tied to the needs of the students. Charter schools are objecting to this change because historically, the often-robust special needs payments they have been receiving will be reduced as the current payment structure provides money in excess of the services required by their special needs’ students.

The Governor is also proposing that cyber charter schools be paid a flat statewide tuition rate. Currently, cyber charters are paid tuition based on the per pupil cost of where the cyber student lives, and the school district must remit the per pupil cost for that district. This per pupil cost has no relation to the cost of operating the cyber charter school.

Cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania charge school districts between $9,170 and $22,300 per student per year. For comparison, the typical tuition rates an Intermediate Unit charges to provide a comparable online education is around $5,400 per student per year. The governor’s budget establishes a statewide cyber tuition rate of $9,500 per student per year and will better align tuition with the actual costs of providing an online education.

I have long supported charter school funding reform, including looking at how tuition is determined as it is a function of where the student resides and not a function of the cost of the charter school. I am also interested in those schools operated by for profit management companies. The Governor’s budget proposal offers, yet again, an opportunity for overdue reform.