To help balance the books, school officials ask Pa. lawmakers to boost basic ed funding, reform charter school law

(U.S. Department of Education / Flickr)

Administrators who balance budgets for Pennsylvania’s school districts are calling on lawmakers to increase state aid for education, saying that compulsory spending hikes have led to tax increases and staff cuts in public school systems across the state.

Members of two organizations representing Pennsylvania’s school administrators said Tuesday that state education spending has failed to keep pace with the rising costs of charter schools, employee pensions, and special education.

Those three areas generated a 7.8 percent spending increase for the average Pennsylvania school district in the 2017-18 school year, according to an annual survey of school district budgets conducted by the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) and Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA).

School districts don’t have any authority to lower these “mandated costs,” the administrators said. They must cut programs or increase taxes to balance their budgets.

“Managing a school district budget is a formidable challenge,” Jay Himes, PASBO executive director, said during a Capitol press conference Tuesday. “Costs go up every year, and unfortunately [districts have] only limited options to address those increases.”

Cumulatively, costs of pensions, charter schools, and special education rose by $4.67 billion between 2010 and 2018, according to the group’s analysis of Pennsylvania Department of Education data.

State funding increased by only $2.24 billion over the same period, forcing local taxpayers to make up the difference.

Himes said that 74 percent of surveyed school districts said they planned to levy tax hikes in 2019 to cover increased spending on mandated expenses.

Districts that can’t balance their budgets after levying a tax increase may cut programs or staff to make ends meet. That could be the case in places like the Titusville Area School District, a small, rural public school system with a meager tax base.

“We’re trapped between trying to provide needed services and our ability to fund those services,” said Shawn Sampson, Titusville Area School District business administrator. “Without increased [state] funding each year, the district would be forced to reduce services in a community where that cannot afford to happen.”

Himes said that increased state aid isn’t the only way to help school districts.

State lawmakers could provide “immediate relief” to districts and their taxpayers if they reform Pennsylvania’s charter school tuition formula, Himes said.

Public school tuition payments to charter schools grew by 10 percent in the last three years, according to the PASBO and PASA budget report, and now total $1.8 billion across the state.

The release of the annual school budget survey came on the same day that a leading educational research organization published a landmark study of Pennsylvania’s charter schools.

The study from Stanford University researchers may offer new ammunition to public school professionals and reform advocates, who say that charter schools have failed to deliver on their promise of offering a superior education to traditional public schools.

Some 175 charter schools have opened their doors in Pennsylvania since the state passed its first charter school law in 1997, in an effort to spur educational innovation and competition by offering an alternative to traditional public schools.

Today, 130,000 students in Pennsylvania attend charter schools, which are privately operated but funded by tuition contributions from taxpayer-funded public schools

Critics have opposed the diversion of public school dollars to privately operated charter schools, which are not bound by the same state and federal regulations as their traditional public counterparts.

Mark DiRocco, president of PASA, pointed to the Stanford study on Tuesday as proof that the General Assembly must reform the state’s charter school funding law and accountability measures.

The Stanford study found that Pennsylvania’s charter schools failed to deliver better reading education to their students than traditional public schools, and often delivered a worse education in math.

They also found that cyber charter schools delivered “remarkably weaker” progress in reading and math than students in traditional public schools.

Cyber charter schools enroll 25 percent of Pennsylvania’s charter school students. But at the rate they learn, those students experience the equivalent of 106 fewer days of reading instruction and 118 fewer days of math instruction per year than children in traditional public schools, researchers found.

“Local taxpayers foot the bill for these abysmal learning results to the detriment of local school districts and children attending cyber charter schools,” DiRocco said. “This has gone on too long, and the Legislature must act to correct this situation.”

Ava Meyers, president of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, defended the performance of the state’s brick-and-mortar charter schools in an emailed statement on Tuesday, saying they “are going toe-to-toe with traditional public schools and are coming out on top.”

She said the report failed to take into account important information about cyber charter schools.

“It is important to recognize that the data used in the report is dated and fails to acknowledge the substantial changes cyber charter schools in our state have made to facilitate continued improvements that are not reflected in this study,” Meyers wrote.

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