Gov. Wolf, Rep. Ciresi, SEPA Schools Call for Bipartisan Charter School Plan to Save Nearly $400 Million

Governor Tom Wolf announced today that Pennsylvania school districts would save an estimated $395 million under his plan to improve the quality of charter schools and control rising costs. The governor was joined for a press conference at Pottstown High School by bipartisan legislators and school leaders including Art Levinowitz, president of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

“The skyrocketing cost of charter schools is costing taxpayers way too much money, and these costs have grown during the pandemic,” said Gov. Wolf. “This hurts students and communities by forcing school districts to cut learning programs and raise property taxes, just as students are going back to school and families are recovering from the pandemic.”

“We must fix the law so each of our school districts is not forced to overpay charter schools. With this bipartisan plan, school districts can save $395 million dollars and put that money back into the classroom. That means more resources for our students and a better start in life for more children.”

Protect taxpayers and save school districts an estimated $395 million a year

The governor’s proposal would save school districts an estimated $395 million a year by better aligning charter school funding to actual costs. The savings include $185 million by funding special education in charter schools as the state does for all other public schools and $210 million a year by establishing a statewide cyber charter school tuition rate.

Savings by county for school districts include:

  • Bucks Co. school districts save $10.9 million,
  • Chester Co. school districts save $22.3 million,
  • Delaware Co. school districts save $16 million,
  • Montgomery Co. school districts save $11.7 million, and
  • Philadelphia saves $154.4 million.

Among school districts in the southeast, Coatesville Area School District would save $15 million, third most in the state, Chester-Upland School District would save $5.3 million, fifth most in the state, William Penn School District would save $2.5 million, 14th most in the state, and Bristol Township School District would save $2.4 million, 15th most in the state. A complete of savings by school district is available here.

“Pressure continues to grow on the legislature to make long-overdue changes to our outdated and broken charter school law,” said Representative Joe Ciresi. “Our reform reins in out-of-control charter costs to provide much-needed relief to underfunded districts like Pottstown, while preserving school choice, holding low-performing charters accountable, and requiring transparent and ethical conduct. It’s time – HB 272 needs to pass, for our students, our taxpayers, and our communities.”

“We need to fix this broken system that is diverting more and more resources away from children in already-underfunded public schools,” said Senator Tim Kearney. “Our plan would protect school districts and taxpayers from overpaying millions of dollars each year and would hold charter schools to the same level of accountability and transparency as traditional schools. We cannot wait any longer to deliver a high-quality education to every student, because our kids are worth it.”

“The state must enact comprehensive reforms to address areas of charter school operations, accountability, and funding,” said Art Levinowitz, president of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and an Upper Dublin School Board member. “The 24-year-old Charter School Law includes formulas for regular and special education programs that require districts to send more money to charter schools than is needed to operate their programs and place a significant financial burden on districts’ resources and taxpayers. This past year, the Upper Dublin School District has experienced a 200% increase in the costs to cyber charter schools.”

The Bipartisan Special Education Funding Commission recommended using the special education funding formula for charter schools just as the state does for school districts.

The current flawed process requires school districts to pay charter schools using the outdated assumption that 16 percent of students get special education. As a result, some charters are vastly overpaid for services they do not provide, leaving special education students in school districts and other charter schools with less funding.

Providing an online education costs the same regardless of where the student lives, but cyber schools charge school districts between $9,170 and $22,300 per student, while Intermediate Units only charge $5,400 per online student. Setting one statewide rate ensures that school districts are not charged more than $9,500 per regular education student, reflecting the actual cost of an online education by higher-performing cyber schools.

Protect students by holding low-performing charter schools accountable

Real school choice means quality learning. While some charter schools provide a great education, many charters, especially cyber charter schools, have poor educational outcomes. The governor’s bipartisan plan ensures charter schools are providing students with a quality education.

  • Creates charter school performance standards that hold low-performing charter schools accountable and reward high-performing charters with more flexibility.
  • Limits cyber school enrollment until their educational quality improves. All 14 cyber schools in Pennsylvania are designated for federal school improvement, with the vast majority among the lowest 5 percent of public schools. A Stanford University report released in 2019 found overwhelming negative results from Pennsylvania’s cyber schools and urged reform by the state.

Protect public trust by making for-profit charter school companies accountable to taxpayers

Despite costing taxpayers more than $2 billion a year, charter schools have little public oversight and no publicly elected school board. For-profit companies that manage many charter schools are not required to have independent financial audits.

  • Require charter schools to have policies to prevent nepotism and conflicts of interest so leaders do not use charter schools for their own financial benefit.
  • Ensure charter schools and their leaders follow requirements of the State Ethics Commission, since they are public officials.

“It’s past time to fix our charter school law,” Gov. Wolf said. “These commonsense solutions will protect taxpayers, students, and the public trust, while improving accountability and quality in education.”

Directing $6.4 billion in state funding through the fair funding formula

In addition to fixing the charter school law, the governor is proposing a solution to Pennsylvania’s unfair school funding system. While the state’s fair funding formula was created in 2016, only new funding, about 11 percent, which is $700 million of state funding, runs through it. The remaining 89 percent, or $5.5 billion, is still distributed based on student enrollment in 1992, without considering shifts in student counts or actual costs school districts face today. Urban and rural school districts with growing student enrollment must fill the funding gap with frequent property tax increases, adding to the burden of homeowners and businesses.

The governor’s proposal runs all existing basic education funding, $6.2 billion, plus a $200 million increase this year, through the fair funding formula. Separately, an additional $1.15 billion will ensure that no school loses a single dollar in state resources from using the formula.

“Schools with increasing enrollment in urban, suburban and rural communities will finally be funded fairly and shrinking districts are protected,” said Gov. Wolf. “Our state can no longer wait to address the school funding problem. Every student deserves a good education, no matter where they live. That’s what parents want for their children, and what Pennsylvania needs for our future.”