Charter schools waste taxpayer money.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf proposes we stop wasting that money by holding charter schools as accountable as the state’s authentic public schools.
The Democratic governor made his most recent proposal yesterday as part of his 2020-21 budget address.
It’s a common sense proposal that only seems revolutionary because officials have been so blinded with school privatization fantasies.
Charter schools are funded with tax dollars but can be run by business interests thereby forgoing elected school boards and a host of regulations meant to safeguard children and the community’s investment.
The Commonwealth is infamous for allowing some of the most permissive charter school policies in the nation, which destabilize authentic public schools and force local tax increases and reductions in student services while charter operators get rich.
During his budget proposal, Wolf suggested three main improvements.
First, he wants charter schools to use a new tiered funding formula to determine how much money they get for special education students enrolled in their schools. He estimates this would save $147 million annually.
Right now, charters get tuition based on the average amount the local public school spends on special education.
This incentivizes charters to enroll (and identify) children with minimal special needs. That way, the school gets more money than needed to help students learn and operators can pocket the difference.
It also incentivizes charters not to enroll students with greater special needs because operators won’t receive the money necessary to meet them.
This helps explain why charter schools in the Commonwealth typically enroll fewer and less needy special education students than authentic public schools do. Charters typically end up collecting $10,000 or more per student than they spend providing services, according to Education Voters of Pennsylvania, a public school advocacy group.
Wolf’s new proposal would more closely match the level of special education students need with the funding charter schools get for enrolling them, thus removing any financial incentives for selective enrollment of these students.
Second, Wolf wants to stop cyber charter schools from collecting the same amount of money for each student as brick and mortar schools get.
Cyber charters schools do not have school buildings to keep up. They do not have physical classrooms, cafeterias, hallways, gymnasiums, athletic fields, etc. In most cases, they have administrative offices and laptop computers given to students to use at their own homes.
At present, the statewide tuition rate for cyber charter schools ranges from $7,700 to $21,400 per student per year.
Wolf figures that number should be a flat $9,500. That should save an estimated $133 million annually.
However, Wolf’s proposal is double the cost of providing a full-time education at home via computer. It reduces the waste, but his figure could still use a trim.
Finally, the governor proposes fixing the way we mediate financial disputes between charter schools and authentic public schools.
Right now, if a school district does not pay the tuition for its resident students who attend a charter school or there is some dispute between the two on tuition payments, the charter school turns to the state Department of Education (PDE) to reconcile the dispute. Wolf proposes several changes to increase fairness, accountability, and transparency in this process. For instance, he wants to require charter schools to report their expenditures and deductions so they could be included in deciding what the tuition should be at a given charter school.
If enacted such reforms would save $280 million a year and go a long way to fixing many of the problems with charter school finances.
The Democratic governor has suggested similar improvements before – even going so far as to threaten enacting some of them with executive orders if the Republican-controlled legislature continues to shirk its duty. However, yesterday’s budget proposal was the closest it has come to fruition.
Typically, Ana Meyers, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, saw Wolf’s proposal as an attack on her industry.
Wolf wants to cut funding to charters to increase it at public schools, she said, but charter schools are, also, public schools.
“The level of hypocrisy from our governor knows no bounds,” she said in a written statement. “Charter school students and their families are not second-class citizens. These parents pay their taxes and their children attend a PA-designated public school. There is no reason why charter school students deserve less financial support than their district peers.”
However, wolf’s proposal does not leave charter school students with less. It reduces waste and helps authentic public schools keep the same level of services without having to resort to local tax increases.
“Our charter school system is in desperate need of reform,” Wolf said. “It’s time to close the loopholes, it’s time to establish real standards, and it’s time to level the playing field.”
Wolf’s proposal doesn’t stop with his budget outline.
Democratic legislators are set to introduce a 120-page proposal in Harrisburg that builds on it even further.
The legislation – House Bill 2261 to be introduced by Rep. Joseph Ciresi (D-Montgomery), and Senate Bill 1024, to be introduced by Senators Lindsey Williams (D-Allegheny) and James Brewster (D-Allegheny), would do the following:
- Require charter school trustees and administrators to comply with the same financial and ethical reporting standards as school board members and district officials;
- Require charter school meetings to comply with the Sunshine Act;
- Require any company running a charter school to open up their records;
- Establish a statewide, data-driven cyber charter school tuition rate;
- Apply the state special education funding formula used by public schools to charter schools;
- Require charter schools to use actual accounting and enrollment in calculating tuition – backed up by PA Department of Education – to make sure payments are fair, consistent, and promises are kept;
- Require charter schools to carry enough insurance to take care of kids and families if the charter closes or the parent company goes out of business;
- Create a standard state framework for charter school applications;
- Standardize the method to change charter schools’ missions and goals to reward innovation and best practices, and ensure school districts have the tools needed to evaluate changes to charters;
- Create a state grading system for charters to allow high-performing schools even more self-determination while focusing attention on low-performing schools;
- Stop the creation of new cyber charter schools until the existing schools improve performance and require PDE to create enrollment and performance standards.
Here’s hoping that such common sense initiatives can find bipartisan support.
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