By ML Wernecke
School board members across the commonwealth are seeing red because the dollars they are sending to cyber- charter schools are spiraling out of control, putting intense pressure on local property taxes.
Pennsylvania’s antiquated Charter School Law sets the ground rules for payments to cyber-charters and school districts are getting gouged.
One of its more puzzling features of the law is that payments are unrelated the actual cost of delivering an online education. In fact, school districts must pay the same amount in tuition to online cyber charters as they do to charter schools that teach in person in classrooms and on campuses. As anyone who spent the last year on Zoom can tell you, there is a difference between in person and virtual settings.
Over 90 percent of Pennsylvania public school districts offer online learning programs for their students and school officials are keenly aware of the costs of running virtual programs. Some school board members estimate that district-run virtual education costs only 25 percent of what they are paying cyber charter operators. No wonder that districts are frustrated since they could educate four students online for the cost of sending one student to a cyber charter.
The Senate Education Committee can take to the first step to solving this problem by advancing state Sen. Lindsey Williams’s, D-Allegheny, charter reform legislation (SB27). Rep. Joe Ciresi, D-Montgomery, is sponsoring companion legislation (HB272) in the state House.
This legislation would update how charter school tuition rates are calculated in two ways. First, it would establish standard cyber charter tuition rate at $9,500, replacing the current byzantine range of $9,659 to $22,322.
In addition, it would reduce the pressure on local taxpayers by requiring charter schools to use the same criteria as other public schools to calculate special ed tuition rates by applying the Special Education Funding Formula already created and adopted by the Legislature.
The Senate Education Committee has given no sign when it plans to consider Williams’ bill. This ignores the expressed will of the more than 390 school districts that have passed resolutions calling for the General Assembly to fix the “flawed charter school funding systems.” It also ignores the needs of the taxpayers on their districts.
Three numbers tell the story of why the Senate Education Committee needs to act: $120 million, 6,300, and 8 percent.
Payments to charter schools rose by $120 million in the legislative districts represented by the 11 members of the Senate Education Committee.
To put this into perspective, $120 million is more than the increase Basic Education Funding that the legislature passed in 2018-19. It is also nearly one-quarter of the $475 million hike in charter school tuition that the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials anticipates school districts will pay this year.
Second, cyber enrollment in these same Senate districts grew by more than 6,300 students this year or more than total enrollment in 90 percent of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts.
Finally, rising tuition payments put pressure on property taxes. For some members of the Committee, property taxes would have to increase by over 8 percent to offset rising payments to cyber-charters.
The time to act is now. Slow walking this bill in the year of the cyber surge is turning a deaf ear to taxpayers who will ultimately foot the bill.
ML Wernecke is Director of the PA Charter Performance Center, an initiative of Public Citizens for Children and Youth that produces unbiased, accurate, and timely information to advance sound state-level charter school policy.