Current charter school rules tough on budget

Category:  News
Wednesday, February 19th, 2020 at 8:00 PM

According to the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, during the five-year period of 2012-13 to 2017-18, about 76 cents of every dollar raised in property taxes by school districts in Pennsylvania went to special education and charter schools. These costs are largely out of our control, so if you think about that for a while, you will understand why dealing with the budget has been so frustrating. 

At another time I will explain why special education costs are largely out of our control, but now is the time to address the charter school issue, specifically cyber charter schools. 

Rep. Curt Sonney (R) of Harborcreek Township currently chairs the House Education Committee and has introduced House Bill 1897. This bill will attempt to rein in cyber charter school costs. This is significant as Republicans have typically been hands-off of charter schools. There is finally broad bipartisan recognition that the current system is costing way more than it should. But broad bipartisan resolve to do something about it is not yet present. 

Ten years ago, school districts were paying $800 million to charter schools. Now we pay more than $2 billion. That’s a 150% increase when our overall expenses have increased only 2-4% over that same time. Everyone agrees that the funding formula for charter schools is bad and giving cyber charters more than they need. 

For example, not because we wanted to, but to be responsible to our taxpayers, we’ve contracted with a third-party cyber education provider to try to get back some of our cyber schoolers. We pay the third-party provider $4,500 per student, while we pay cyber charters $10,000 per regular education student and $21,588 for special needs students. Obviously, it can be done for less money than cyber charters are receiving. This is why cyber charters can sponsor the weather cancellation crawler and spend all the tax dollars they spend on commercials. 

HB 1897 would require all school districts to create a cyber learning program by the start of the 2021-22 school year. It would also dissolve all current cyber charter schools at the end of the 2020-21 school year. Specifically, the bill would require districts to offer a cyber learning program, plus the district would need to contract with two other entities to provide options if the student doesn’t want to use the district option. Current cyber charter schools could reorganize into a content provider, but they would have to contract with the district with no set tuition fee. That could mean a real cost savings to districts. There is also language in the bill currently that would establish class size ratios. 

Of course, there is opposition, even from people recognizing how broken the system is. Rep. Joshua Kail (R) from Beaver County has stated that cyber funding reform is needed. But, he takes a position that many families opt for cyber charters due to various issues with their home district. He doesn’t want to be “forcing them back to the school district that they left in the first place.” 

Well, first of all, too bad. We need to quit solving conflict by eliminating it. It’s the number one rule of addressing anxiety. But beyond that, there is evidence, at least from our district and I’m sure others, that his concern is not that valid. Every fall, I sit with principals from every building and review the list of students who attended cyber charter school the previous school year. About 80% of the names, sometimes more, are not recognized by the principals because those students have never set foot in our schools. They are families who previously did home schooling and want the extra help and support of online classes. Or they’re students who transferred here and convinced their parent the stress of a new school is too much, so they just want to stay home and “do cyber school.” 

There are 24,000 students in Pennsylvania in what are state-sanctioned, privately-run and publicly-funded cyber schools. Behind these schools are for-profit companies which provide content and equipment for the students. I wouldn’t have an issue with privately-run content providers if, like all other privately-run enterprises, competition entered into it. The state formula for charter schools is set and was never developed with cyber schools in mind; therefore, there is no competition to provide the services at a reasonable cost. 

If public school districts were responsible for providing the cyber services, providers could be chosen based on a competitive process. Any politician opposing such as system cannot claim to be a fiscally responsible steward of public dollars. 

Tags: local

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