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Charter schools are public schools – they have to be held accountable to the taxpayers | Opinion

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By Noe Ortega

Every Pennsylvania student deserves a good education, and every student in Pennsylvania deserves an education that works best for them.

While Pennsylvania has some great charter schools, other charter schools are not providing an education that prepares students for success in life. Some companies that manage charter schools put taxpayer funded profits ahead of students and their families. These schools are costing taxpayers exorbitant amounts of money while providing a poor education and leaving our students behind

Charter schools are public schools. Our tax dollars fund these schools. And we must hold charter schools accountable to taxpayers and to the same standards as all other public schools.

In 2021, taxpayers will spend almost $3 billion for charter schools. Our local school districts are required by law to pay every charter school serving students in their area. That means that local property taxpayers ultimately foot the bill when costs are unreasonable.

Only about 9 percent of students are in a charter school, but within the next year, $1 in every $5 paid in local property taxes will go to cover charter school costs.

That’s billions of your school tax dollars that school boards and the public do not control or even know how charter schools spend. And as charter school costs go up, it drains funding from regular public-school classrooms, forces cuts to educational programs and causes tax hikes.

Students flocked to cyber-charter schools this year. So did district revenue and federal relief funds

Worse still, some charter schools do not provide a quality education. Charter schools make up about 6 percent of public schools in Pennsylvania, but account for about 25% of the lowest performing schools. Test scores for cyber school student are among the lowest in the state and fewer than two-thirds of their students graduate, well below the state average.

In 2019, a Stanford University report on charter school performance found widespread problems and called for comprehensive reforms.  In fact, Pennsylvania’s charter school law is regarded as among the worst in the nation.

Our broken charter school law is unfair to every student, parent and taxpayer, and the problem has only gotten worse over the past year. The pandemic has caused record enrollment increases at charter schools, and those students deserve a high-quality education. We must act.

The Wolf administration and bipartisan legislators have a commonsense plan that benefits everyone. It protects taxpayers by reining in uncontrolled charter school costs, protects students by holding low performing charter schools accountable, and protects the public by increasing transparency of for-profit management companies

The plan aligns taxpayer spending on charter schools with the actual cost to educate students, ending years of the public overpaying charter schools and saving school districts nearly $400 million.

This reasonable and fair solution is accomplished with two changes. First, the state would pay for special education at charter schools based on the real cost, as we already do for all other public schools. Special education should not be a profit maker for charter schools.

This improvement saves an estimated $185 million a year and helps school districts, as well as some charter schools that are underfunded for special education.

Second, the plan saves $210 million by creating a single statewide tuition rate for cyber schools. It ends huge differences between cyber-school payments when the cost of an online education is the same regardless of where the student lives.

The plan also protects students by creating performance standards for charter schools and limiting enrollment at low-performing schools until their educational quality improves.

Additionally, it will make sure that schools are meeting our quality standards and spending taxpayer dollars appropriately and requires ethical and financial standards to keep charter school management companies accountable to taxpayers.

The companies that make huge profits from charter schools hate these commonsense reforms. They want to keep lining their pockets with your tax dollars and to continue operating in the shadows. Every student, parent, and taxpayer deserves better.

Real choice means high quality learning. This plan preserves school choice and rewards high quality charter schools, protects school districts and taxpayers, and most importantly, ensures students are getting the education they need for successful lives in Pennsylvania.

If you agree that charter schools should be accountable to provide a high-quality education at a reasonable cost, I encourage you to contact your representatives in the General Assembly and ask them to support legislation to fix our broken charter school law.

Pennsylvania’s students deserve more from our charter school system – and they can’t afford to wait.

Noe Ortega is Pennsylvania’s acting secretary of the Department of Education. He writes from Harrisburg. 

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