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Public schools step up fight to win back charter students

When Quakertown Community School Superintendent Bill Harner realized his district was shelling out $250,000 a year in tuition reimbursements for 17 students studying dance at a performing arts charter in nearby Allentown, he came up with a battle plan.

The Upper Bucks district, he decided, would beat the Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Arts at its own game.

"We will have a brand-new dance studio," said Harner, who has counted more than 20 applicants for a program that, he vows, will put the district "on the map for dance."

And he isn't finished. To enhance the drama program, a "black box" theater, a bare-bones performance space, is being built. Declared Harner: "We love competition."

Each year, Quakertown Community spends about $2 million on students who choose to attend charters rather than their public schools. As tuition payments to charters bite ever deeper into the budgets of virtually every district in the region, some are beginning aggressive campaigns to win kids back. Their strategies range from direct-mail marketing, to boisterous "back-to-school" rallies with bouncy castles, to pricey new programs such as all-day kindergarten.

Tuition reimbursements to charters eat up, on average, 5.4 percent of school budgets in Pennsylvania. Calculated according to a state-established formula based on the district's per-pupil expenses from the previous year, payments can range from about $6,000 to nearly $30,000 per student.

In trying to hold on to that money, districts are jumping on a national trend, which in various parts of the country has manifested itself in digital billboards and gimmicks like promotional "baby bags" for new parents. The efforts in Southeastern Pennsylvania have been more low-key, with superintendents noting that wary taxpayers would be resistant to slick ad campaigns.

"We basically look at the people [sending their children to] charters and write them a letter saying, 'We know you have a choice -- we think we have a great program and here's why,' " said Downingtown School District Superintendent Larry Mussoline.

The district's charter payments added up to $8.9 million last year – excluding the cost of busing students who attend charters within a 10-mile radius.

"Sometimes people get angry with [the letters]," Mussoline said. "And I say, 'It's OK for the charter schools to advertise on television and billboards and radio, but I can't send a letter for 45 or 49 cents?' "

In a survey by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, 134 of the 173 charter schools that responded indicated that in 2014-15, they spent more than $4.3 million on advertising and promoted activities such as open houses. Of that, $3.7 million  was spent by five cyber-charters alone.

In the contest for students, one of the most cost-effective moves for public school districts is to expand offerings in online learning. According to Harner, Quakertown has to pay about $12,000 for a student who leaves for a cyber-charter, yet the district can teach that same child online for about $3,000.

Many suburban education officials say they have found the most successful technique isn't fancy marketing so much as the addition of programs that parents cite as reasons for sending their children to charters.

Mary Curley, director of communications and learning solutions for the Chester County Intermediate Unit, said part of her job is advising districts on how to communicate to parents what they have to offer.

"Parents leave with their children for a reason," Curley said. "If the reason is they're looking for a program that has full-day kindergarten, investigate getting full-day kindergarten. Then when you get it, announce it to them."

In the Avon Grove School District in southern Chester County, officials just unveiled a plan for all-day kindergarten for 2017-18 -- aimed at winning back some of the 746 students that attend Avon Grove Charter School. Superintendent M. Christopher Marchese said that much of the added cost of hiring teachers and building modular classrooms will be offset by savings on the 40 to 60 students it expects to bring back from the charter school annually.

Recently, the district sent  a postcard to charter parents telling them about new initiatives like the kindergarten plan. "If you get one student to come back," Marchese said, "it's $10,000 [in savings] or $23,000 for a special-ed student."

Several years ago, the Phoenixville Area School District launched online programs to compete with cyber-charters and was able to reduce its spending on cyber-charter reimbursements by about 40 to 50 percent, according to Superintendent Alan Fegley. "I think that's because the students are given the option of coming in and doing extracurricular activities" and also taking advanced-level courses -- choices not available from most cyber-charters, he said.

The district also started full-day kindergarten four years ago after hearing from many parents who were turning to charters for the program. "We said we have to pay for full-day no matter what, so it was a pretty easy decision," Fegley said.

Phoenixville, like some other districts, gets a boost in free advertising through the In Community/Phoenixville  magazine -- featuring local news centered mostly around schools -- that is distributed to every address within the district. The schools get the cover and 16 glossy pages inside to showcase their achievements.

No suburban district has had a greater financial incentive to compete against charters than the poverty-plagued Chester Upland School District, which spends a whopping 46.1 percent of its budget on charter reimbursements. A marketing push that began six years ago, with then-Superintendent Gregory Shannon knocking on parents' doors, has evolved to include a carnival-like summer "back-to-school" rally to court parents and kids with a bouncy castle and DJs from Power 99.

"We did a lot of enrollments that day, whether they were newly enrolling or coming back from charter schools,"  Chester Upland receiver Peter Barsz said of the rally. A variety of efforts – such as volunteers continuing to go door-to-door every summer to persuade parents of the advantages of  the public schools – have helped increase the share of students in traditional classrooms from 40 percent to roughly 47 percent in the last several years.

How do charters view the pushback? At Chester County's largest, the 2,800-student K-12 Collegium Charter School in Exton, officials say some parents are annoyed by efforts like the letters the Downingtown district sends out. "It makes them mad that their tax dollars are being spent to try to convince them to come back to the district they chose to leave," said Collegium's chief operating officer, Beth Jones.

Her school, she noted, hasn't had to do any advertising for years.