By Art Levinowitz
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, school districts across the nation saw a huge increase in cyber- charter school enrollment, including right here in Pennsylvania where cyber charter school enrollment is up by 63 percent to 62,000 students as of Oct. 1, 2020.<
This trend should have Pennsylvania parents and taxpayers extremely concerned because of the immediate as well as long-lasting financial and academic implications this enrollment increase will have on school districts and their students.
Looking first at the financial concern; school districts can expect as much as a $350 million increase in their cyber- charter tuition bills this year alone, due to the pandemic-generated cyber charter school enrollment increases.
It’s important to keep in mind that this massive sum is only part of the overall $475 million overall charter school tuition increase for this school year that school districts are facing in addition to navigating through a global pandemic.
The $475 million increase in charter school tuition this school year effectively nullifies the majority of the federal funds public schools received under the CARES Act. This means most of those funds will not have their intended impact – to aid our public schools in a time of crisis.
Moreover, for many districts, their Act 1 index rate will not allow for them to increase property taxes to cover the gap in increased charter school payments, leaving hopelessly unbalanced budgets.
In the Upper Dublin School District, the costs for charter schools have been relatively low compared to our neighbors.
Each regular education student costs the district $17,750 and each special education student costs the district $38,000. We have seen a significant increase in enrollment and costs this year compared to last year.
Our overall costs for last school year were $365,250 with only 13 students attending a charter school.
This year our costs are projected to be $968,250 or an increase of $603,000 with 42 charter school students. The $603,000 results in a .8 percent tax increase to offset the additional cost.
Financial implications aside, there is the notable record of dismal academic performance of Pennsylvania’s cyber charter school community, which is one of the largest in the country and well-established before the pandemic hit.
Cyber-charter school proficiency rates on the most recent state assessments were on average more than 24 percent lower; and 4-year graduation rates were more than 33 percent lower than traditional public schools. As a result of this performance issues, every cyber charter school currently operating has been identified by the Pennsylvania Department of Education as needing support and improvement.
What is the root of the problem? Let’s look at Pennsylvania’s charter school law which is undeniably outdated, ineffective, and damaging to our school districts.
In order to right the ship, comprehensive charter-school reform is essential. We know that the current charter funding mechanism forces school districts to overpay cyber-charter schools and overpay for charter special education costs by hundreds of millions of dollars each school year. Until there is a change to the underlying policy, school districts and taxpayers will continue to ultimately foot the bill no matter how you slice it.
Many people in Pennsylvania are rightfully disappointed with the poor quality of cyber-charter schools and how they are disproportionally funded at the expense of school districts.
Given the circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is especially frustrating since so many more families turned to these virtual operators in desperation. Simply put, Pennsylvania policymakers need to drop the politics and put kids first. Level the playing field for school districts by reforming the charter school law’s antiquated provisions related to cyber charter authorizing and funding.
It is my hope that many of the families that left our district for a charter school will reconsider their decision and return to Upper Dublin next year for the superior education available in the district.
Art Levinowitz is president of the Pennsylvania School Board Association and a school director in the Upper Dublin School District in Montgomery County.