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Philly-area superintendents press for reforms, say payments to charter schools aren’t sustainable

As more Pennsylvania students have left traditional public schools for charters, superintendents warn that rising costs for charters will force districts to make cuts.

As students have continued to leave traditional public schools for charters, superintendents say Pennsylvania needs to change how charters are funded.
As students have continued to leave traditional public schools for charters, superintendents say Pennsylvania needs to change how charters are funded.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Superintendents spanning the Philadelphia region pushed Pennsylvania lawmakers Wednesday to change how charter schools are funded, warning of program cuts and rising costs to taxpayers if payments to the independently run schools are not curbed.

After a pandemic year in which thousands more Pennsylvania students left traditional public schools for cyber charters, superintendents from Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties said during a news conference that changes to charter funding — endorsed by Gov. Tom Wolf, but a perennial point of contention in Harrisburg — were more important than ever.

“We don’t want to be in a situation again where we’re looking to make sacrifices with our music, art, theater programs,” said Upper Darby Superintendent Dan McGarry. But the continued rise in payments to charter schools — the district anticipates $11 million in charter costs next year, a 16% increase over this year — “is something that we simply cannot sustain.”

School districts are receiving an influx of federal funding to respond to the pandemic. But the one-time money won’t resolve what has been a yearslong trend of mounting costs confronting districts: from special education services and state pension system payments, to the costs for children to attend charter schools.

» READ MORE: Billions of stimulus dollars are coming to Pa. and N.J. schools to help get them open again

Charter funding, in particular, has been a target for traditional public education advocates. School districts pay charters based on enrollment, and an “overwhelming number” of districts — 82% — identified charter payments as one of their biggest budget pressures this year, according to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

Charter advocates say the schools have been unfairly scapegoated. “Charter school enrollment has gone up over 80% in the past 11 years for a reason: Parents are pleased with the experiences their children receive at these schools,” said Lenny McAllister, CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.

Superintendents say the problem isn’t parental choice, but how it’s funded — and are backing Wolf’s proposal to set a statewide tuition rate for cyber charter schools, which have seen enrollment explode during the pandemic.

» READ MORE: Cyber charter enrollments are surging. School districts are picking up the tab.

Districts pay cyber charters based on what the districts spend per student. But because school spending varies widely in Pennsylvania between wealthier and poorer communities, cyber charters are paid different rates depending on the student’s home district.

The rates are also above what school districts say it costs to educate students online — a discrepancy they say the pandemic reinforced. The West Chester Area School District spent $10.8 million this year to run a cyber school for 1,700 students, or $6,400 per student, said Superintendent Jim Scanlon.

It would have cost the district at least $27 million to send those children to cyber charters — and as much as $33 million, accounting for how charters are paid for students requiring special education services, said Scanlon, who was joined by Bensalem Superintendent Samuel Lee and Pottstown Superintendent Stephen Rodriguez.

“There’s no Financial 101 course in the world” that would justify that imbalance, Scanlon said — noting that Pennsylvania’s cyber charter schools also have come under fire for poor academic performance.

Whether lawmakers will change the funding system remains unclear. A bill that would set a statewide cyber charter rate of $9,500 per regular-education student and change how charters are compensated for special education students has gained some bipartisan support. But it has yet to receive a hearing in Harrisburg. Charter advocates have been fighting the proposal, which they say would mean deep cuts for their students.

“Despite districts receiving billions in federal aid since last spring, the toxic competition sadly continues, trapping children in the crossfire,” McAllister said.