Frustrated by mounting payments their districts have been making to send students to charter schools, suburban Philadelphia superintendents on Monday called on legislative leaders to back changes that would curb their costs and keep more money in traditional public schools.
At a news conference outside Evergreen Elementary School in Collegeville, superintendents from the Perkiomen Valley, Upper Dublin, Norristown, and Quakertown School Districts joined lawmakers and advocates who have been pressing for charter funding changes for years.
“This is not an attack on the parents’ right to choose the best educational setting for their child,” said Christopher Dormer, the Norristown superintendent. “But today is an attack on a law that is broken,” with “skewed formulas that have resulted in drastic overpayments” to charters, with “little or no oversight on how those tax dollars are being spent.”
Funding for charter schools — which are independently managed — has long been controversial in Pennsylvania, with traditional public schools accusing charters of draining their budgets and forcing property tax increases. Charters argue that they offer families needed alternatives and shouldn’t lose funding.
But as districts have faced rising costs — not just for charters, but for special education services and payments into the state pension system — advocates say addressing charter funding is only growing more important.
In Perkiomen Valley, the district’s costs for sending students to charters have grown by more than 55% since 2015, said Superintendent Barbara Russell.
“That takes money away from the students attending in our school district,” Russell said. While the district has its own virtual learning programs, the money it must pay for students to attend cyber charter schools “where the accountability looks very different ... raises lots of questions.”
Cyber charter schools have been a particular source of contention for superintendents and traditional public school advocates, both for poor performance on standardized tests and their costs. Because the cyber schools — which saw enrollment soar during the pandemic — are authorized by the state, school districts have no authority over them, while the districts do have some oversight over brick-and-mortar charters. But they are funded by districts in the same way as those charters: based on enrollment, at a rate based on what the districts spend per pupil.
Given Pennsylvania’s heavy reliance on local taxes to fund public education, and greatly differing tax bases between wealthy and poor communities, what school districts spend — and thus, their reimbursement rates to charters — can vary significantly.
Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has called for a statewide payment rate for cyber charters, among other funding and accountability changes. But the Republican-led legislature has not embraced his proposal.
A spokesperson for Senate President Jake Corman (R., Centre) declined to comment Monday on plans for voting on legislation. But “if there are concerns about the growth in costs associated with charter schools, the first question we should ask is why students are leaving those [traditional public] schools in the first place,” said the spokesperson, Jason Thompson.
Jean Morrow, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said that a statewide tuition rate for cyber charters was “inflexible and unfair.” She also said a bill incorporating Wolf’s proposal sponsored by Rep. Joe Ciresi, a Montgomery County Democrat, “would result in hundreds of millions of dollars cut to public charter schools.”
“This does not advance fairness, equity, and quality in the public education system,” Morrow said. She said the coalition instead endorses a bill introduced by Rep. Jesse Topper (R., Bedford), which would give districts some added money to compensate for charter costs, but wouldn’t change the funding flowing to charters.
Superintendents said broader reforms were needed.
“I’ll tell you, it does not cost $14,000 per year to educate a child in a fully virtual environment,” said Dormer, referring to what Norristown pays per student attending cyber charters. In contrast, he said, it costs the district $5,500 to educate a student fully online.
Meanwhile, for special education students attending cyber charters, Norristown pays $34,000 per student, Dormer said — another issue cited by superintendents Monday, noting the higher rates their districts pay for any student deemed by a charter to require special education services.
More than half of students who leave the Upper Dublin School District for cyber charters are identified as requiring special education or another intervention, said Superintendent Steven Yanni.
Bill Harner, the Quakertown Community School District superintendent, said one-third of students in his district who enroll in cyber charters are classified by their new schools as having a disability.
“Why are they being reclassified? Because it’s a cash cow,” Harner said. “It’s a terrible waste of taxpayer dollars.”
More than 430 of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts have passed a resolution calling for charter funding changes, according to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.
Larry Feinberg, a longtime Haverford Township school board member and director of the Keystone Center for Charter Change, which is backed by the school boards association and organized the news conference along with the Children First advocacy group, said it wasn’t just “a bunch of Democrats in Southeastern Pennsylvania” backing the issue.
Of the 70 lawmakers cosponsoring Ciresi’s bill, 20% are Republican, Feinberg said. (Among those joining the superintendents Monday was Tracy Pennycuick, a Montgomery County Republican.)
For school districts — especially those with more limited funding — the current charter funding system means “fewer resources to pay for things like math coaches, reading coaches, nurses, counselors,” Feinberg said. “The impact is palpable, and it’s real.”