Lawmakers, Wolf need to fix Pennsylvania’s charter school funding imbalance | Opinion

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By Jay Himes

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives recently passed a package of charter school reform bills without considering amendments addressing the most important charter school reform issue—funding.

While debate heated up between supporters and opponents of the bills, no matter what side of the issue you’re on, we can all agree that all students need access to a high quality education. Our concerns are not whether charter schools are good or bad. Instead, our concern is how current state policy funds charter schools and the financial impact that current policy has on all of our school districts, taxpayers and students.

The entire burden of funding charter schools falls on school districts and local taxpayers. Last year, 37 cents of every additional dollar raised in property taxes went to pay the increasing cost of charter school tuition, which grew by  10 percent.

If the Legislature fails to recognize and resolve the impact of mandated charter school costs on school districts and taxpayers, public education funding will become even more serious a problem down the road. In fact, for school districts across the state, this problem has already started and is forcing them into real fiscal distress.

In May, for example, former state Education and Budget Secretary and charter school executive, Charles Zogby, in his capacity as Erie City School District’s financial administrator, highlighted charter school tuition costs as the primary opportunity for turnaround in the school district’s financial plan.

“What is abundantly clear,” he stated in the plan, “is that of all the revenue and expenditure balancing options at its disposal, curbing future charter school enrollment growth is the District’s single biggest lever to positively impact its future budgets and better ensure its fiscal solvency going forward.”

While charter school funding reform has not been a real part of the conversation thus far, the Senate is considering legislation to create a charter school funding commission to study the issue. While we have worked closely with previous school funding commissions, our optimism isn’t high.

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Despite the successes of past funding commissions, the one recommendation that has never been implemented was the one calling for significant change to the charter school special education tuition calculation.

That legislation has never moved, and as a result, charter school funding policy has remained unchanged for two decades. The proposed charter school funding commission does not guarantee immediate—or any—relief to school districts or taxpayers, and we fear it will be viewed as an opportunity to kick the can down the road by opponents of change.

With 20 years to have vetted the current charter school funding policy, there are many ways to tackle this issue, and it can be done without taking away money from charter schools.

The most effective way to provide immediate relief is simply to increase the state’s share of charter school costs—and since the state’s contribution is currently zero, any increase in state support for this purpose will lessen the local burden. This can be done, in part, through a state charter school tuition reimbursement that substantially places the state at the charter policy table.

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A decade ago, the state shared these mandated school district costs through a reimbursement to school districts, then it went away.

Additionally, current charter funding policy could be amended to use the actual percentage of a district’s special education students in the calculation, rather than a fictitious amount.

We could deduct a district’s charter school tuition costs from the current tuition calculation. We could also limit the annual increase in the charter school tuition rate to a school district’s Act 1 index.

Again, we could resolve this tumultuous financial problem now plaguing school districts and local taxpayers without taking a dime from charter schools, school districts and their students.

House Education Committee Chairman Curt Sonney, a Republican who happens to represent school districts near the city of Erie, said last week at the end of the House debate that he recognized these concerns about funding.

“What you are arguing for is more funding and more accountability. And I can assure you we are going to have those conversations. We are going to go down that road this year,” he said.

With Sonney’s stated commitment to discussing charter school funding policy and the need for greater state investment in our schools, we hope the coming fiscal year will bring about a real conversation and immediate and meaningful funding relief for our school districts, taxpayers and students.

Jay Himes is the executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials. He writes from Harrisburg.

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