Busloads of Pennsylvania charter school students and their families gathered in the state Capitol on Monday, just in time for the end of lawmakers’ summer recess, as they reignited an annual debate over how the state pays for the privately run, publicly funded institutions.
Charter school proponents who packed the ornate rotunda came armed with a very specific grievance: Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposal to impose new rules on charter schools, which enroll more than 140,000 children and control $1.8 billion in taxpayer money.
Wolf announced a series of executive actions in July imposing new fees and ethics requirements on charter schools. Public school districts would also be authorized to limit enrollment to low-performing charters.
The proposed regulations would be the first substantive reforms to the charter sector since the General Assembly passed Pennsylvania’s charter school law in 1997.
But Wolf’s executive power is limited, and he can only affect change in the charter sector through rule-making. The Republican-controlled General Assembly would have to pass a law to change how charter schools are funded — a top priority for many public school advocates.
Charter school advocates, meanwhile, say new regulations would harm those seeking alternatives to traditional public schools.
One of those advocates was Markida Ross, whose son attends a Mastery Charter Schools location in Philadelphia.
Ross had a message for Wolf from the Capitol steps on Monday.
“If your goal is to do everything you can do to improve all public schools [and] ensure every child has great schools to choose, then we are with you,” Ross said, shortly before advocates delivered 3,000 letters from charter school students and their families to Wolf’s Capitol office.
“But if your goal is to attack charter schools that have changed the course of our children’s lives and to take away choices… then we will push back.”
Families who spoke Monday outlined an array of reasons why parents may enroll their children in tuition-free charter schools, which are funded by taxpayer dollars from traditional public school districts.
Ross said her son’s charter school offered an alternative when their neighborhood’s public school was plagued by administrative churn and large class sizes.
Another mother said her children were able to avoid bullying and seek out accelerated coursework when they transferred to a cyber charter school.
Research shows that Pennsylvania’s charter schools deliver mixed results for their students.
A 2019 Stanford University study found that brick-and-mortar charter school students did better in reading than their traditional public school counterparts. The gains were even higher among black and Hispanic charter students.
Those outcomes don’t hold, however, for the students in cyber charter schools, who take most of their courses online.
Those children experience the equivalent of nearly a year less of instruction in math and reading than traditional public school students, Stanford researchers found.
Charter school critics point to those outcomes to argue that Pennsylvania must rein in the growing cyber charter sector, which consists of 15 online schools that perennially log some of the lowest test scores and student attendance rates in the state.
Monday’s Capitol rally coincided with the release of a report that found cyber charter revenues in Pennsylvania are rising faster than enrollment and spending on education.
Education Voters of PA, a public school advocacy group, found that public school districts sent a combined $519 million to cyber charter schools during the 2017-18 school year.
That’s a 12 percent increase from the previous year, the report concluded.
The advocacy group’s report concluded that the costs can’t be explained by rising enrollment alone, and allege that cyber charter schools receive far more money than they spend to educate children.
The report also found that cyber models operated by traditional public school districts cost an average of $5,000 per year. That’s roughly half of what the typical cyber charter schools spends to educate a student without special needs, according to the analysis.
Susan Spicka, the group’s executive director, called on lawmakers to work with Wolf to ensure cyber charter tuition rates match the actual cost of educating students, and not the costs of advertising and rising executive salaries.
“Pennsylvania cannot afford to continue overpaying cyber charters schools more than they’re spending educating kids,” Spicka said. “[School districts] are raising taxes to pay for billboards, executive compensation, and management fees.”