As school districts send increasingly larger shares of their budgets to charter schools, nearly 30 superintendents from across the Philadelphia area joined Monday to call for changes to Pennsylvania’s charter law in a collaboration they described as unprecedented.
District leaders said they hoped Gov. Tom Wolf — who pledged charter change last year — would make the issue a priority in his budget address next week, including by calling for a moratorium on new charters and expansion of existing schools.
"It simply cannot wait any longer,” Souderton Area School District Superintendent Frank Gallagher said Monday at the news conference in Norristown. He said "charter school costs are growing faster than our own district costs” and “hurting public education.”
Charter leaders argued that costs are increasing because students are rejecting traditional schools in favor of charters. They accused district leaders of “attacking” charter schools and families during National School Choice Week.
“It’s clear to anyone paying attention that their political agenda is to put more money in their coffers, not help students seeking the best educational options available," said Ana Meyers, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.
School districts are required to fund charter schools based on what each district spends on its own students, with different rates for regular- and special-education students.
District officials singled out the special-education funding system as particularly problematic. Districts pay charters the same rate for every special-education student, regardless of the student’s needs. That creates a “perverse incentive” for charter schools to enroll students needing lower-cost special-education services, said Samuel Lee, superintendent of the Bensalem School District.
Because of the way special-education funding is calculated, West Chester Area School District Superintendent Jim Scanlon said, the district is sending the same amount of money to charters as it did five years ago — even though the district has recruited students back and has 200 fewer students enrolled in charters.
Charter funding is “not just an urban issue. It’s an issue for all school districts" in Pennsylvania, Scanlon said.
District leaders also expressed frustration with their lack of oversight over charters that some of their students attend. While districts are tasked with authorizing brick-and-mortar charter schools, cyber charters are approved by the state and draw students from across Pennsylvania.
Districts also pay for students to attend brick-and-mortar charters located in other school districts. In Norristown, for instance, “we do not have a single charter school within our boundaries. None. Zero,” said Superintendent Christopher Dormer. Yet, the district sends $9.5 million to charter schools for 550 students, whose education the elected school board has “zero say” over, Dormer said.
Other school districts participating in the news conference included Cheltenham, Haverford Township, Upper Darby, and Philadelphia, where about one-third of public school students attend charters.
While “our sheer number of students in charter schools can often make us seem different than our neighbors," said Philadelphia School Board President Joyce Wilkerson, “what’s become clear over the last several years is that our challenges are no different from school districts across the commonwealth of Pennsylvania."