Pennsylvania is overdue when it comes to reforming charter school laws. Parents and taxpayers are weary of the untruths that are often purported to prevent any type of charter reform. It’s also worth noting that proponents of charter reform are quickly and often accused of “trying to shut down charters” which is untrue. Advocating for transparency and fiscal responsibility does not equal elimination.
One of the frequent deceptions out there is the “but charter schools get less funding!” than traditional public schools argument. The figures I have seen argued vary from $0.68 to $0.91 for every $1 that TPSs get. But one only needs to do a little bit of digging to realize that this isn’t accurate. Comparing flat dollar amounts is not apples to apples.
The fact is, when determining the per-pupil spending to pay a charter school, charters A) are not given money for services that they do not provide; and B) are not permitted to double dip from the funding sources which they receive directly.
It’s not complicated.
With cyber charters, the differences are easy to spot. Some of the expenses that a cyber charter does not incur are transportation, food service and the many costs that go with operating a physical structure (utilities, upgrades, cleaning and maintenance, etc.). It’s insulting to the hardworking Pennsylvania taxpayer that a cyber charter receives the same amount of funding despite not having these overhead costs.
Reforms for fair funding could save hundreds of millions of dollars statewide. Pennsylvania’s cyber charter schools receive taxpayer-supported tuition ranging from $7,300 a year for a regular student to more than $40,000 for a special education student, per a report from Education Voters. Yet the cost to educate a cyber student is estimated to be only $5,000-$10,000 per year.
Brick and mortar charter schools have buildings. Even then, the playing field is not equal. Per Chapter 14 (PA state code for education), “The charter school facility shall be exempt from public school facility regulations except those pertaining to the health or safety of the pupils.” Chapter 14 gives Charter Schools one paragraph of regulations while TPSs have 38 pages to follow. This results in additional costs incurred by a school district that a charter school does not have to spend.
Brick and mortar charters have transportation costs removed from district-to-charter payment because it is the TPSs responsibility to transport the student.
Some traditional public schools provide programs to students such as adult education and college-hybrid programs. If a charter does not provide that program, they do not receive funding for it. Why should they receive funding that is allocated for a service they are not providing?
The Special Education Funding is imbalanced too. TPSs must follow a funding formula developed by the state’s Special Education Funding Reform Commission. Charters do not have to follow this formula. Why is this important? The funding formula presents three tiers of funding which results in a district receiving money based on the needs of the student.
But, charters are not held to the same statutes. They receive a flat rate per special education student. This is relevant because the data tells us that with a few exceptions, most Charters only admit Tier 1 students, but they receive Tier 2-3 funding. This creates a surplus which they are not required to return nor even report.
Lastly, both charters and traditional publics receive federal funding. School districts deduct federal funding and Ready to Learn block grant funding because charters get this funding directly from the federal government or from the state. This prevents charters from double-dipping and getting twice the federal and RTL funding per student. So, a charter is not receiving less funding, it is just receiving certain components of their funding directly from the source.
Fact is, all of Pennsylvania’s schools are underfunded. State per pupil contribution has dropped 40% just in my lifetime. But only by being honest can we begin to make progress.
Charter schools do not “receive less money,” a grievance they like to shout from the rooftops. The district runs the funding through a formula, and even then, usually charters are coming out ahead.
Pennsylvania has some of the most antiquated and taxpayer unfriendly charter school legislation in the country. It’s time for honest and civil discussions about reforms. No one is trying to take away a parent’s choice. But those choices need to be funded fairly for all.