Legislative report highlights financial impact charter schools have on traditional public school districts

Legislative report highlights financial impact charter schools have on traditional public school districts

Author: Jason Gottesman/Wednesday, May 24, 2017/Categories: News and Views

A report released by the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee took a deep-dive into the financial impact charter and cyber charter schools have on traditional public school districts and recommended potential reform measures to help save costs and improve district-charter relations.


According to Dr. Maryann Nardone, the project manager for the report, there are currently 135,000 Pennsylvania students enrolled in Pennsylvania charter and cyber charter schools with 51 school districts accounting for 80 percent of the students and the Philadelphia School District accounting for half.


The report indicated that 40 percent of districts with high charter enrollment number face significant economic challenges that include raising property taxes past the Act 1 index to help make ends meet in the traditional setting.


It was also reported that while charter schools were designed to remove school students from school districts, allowing them to save costs through smaller classes and fewer teachers, the number of districts with students enrolling at the critical mass level at where savings can be achieved are relatively few.


In fact, the report goes on to state, some costs are increased by charter and cyber charter schools attracting students who might otherwise be homeschooled or attend private school, increasing the cost on the school district who has to pay the charter school for the enrollment. Additionally, districts are responsible for making sure students have transportation to and from brick-and-mortar charter schools, which may have different school years.


However, not all the news was bad.


Nardone reported that superintendents providing information for the report noted charter schools do provide innovative programs and help prevent overcrowding.


In terms of recommended reforms, the report pointed to several things that could be changed to improve the fiscal impact on school districts including allowing for a fiscal impact criteria when deciding whether to grant a charter, have uniform per pupil rates being charged by charter schools, eliminating the mandate to extend transportation services not afforded to district students, and requiring students to register with the home school district as a repository for attendance records and personal information.


Other reforms included changing the reimbursement intercept process and improving the financial accountability of the schools through a clear conflict of interest provision in the Charter School Law. Both concepts have been pushed for by Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, who has referred to Pennsylvania’s current charter school law as “the worst in the nation.”


Pennsylvania has spent considerable effort to pass comprehensive charter school reform over the last several legislative sessions, with broad recognition that the 20-year-old law needs to be updated, but little agreement on the specifics of how to provide for reforms.


The debate among legislators during the consideration over whether to release the report highlighted some of the differences.


“When we only look at one side of the ledger, the financial, there are many factors that go into the financial implications for districts and a lot has to do with what we decide to do up here with more resources being allocated or how we fund the whole system,” said Rep. Jake Wheatley (D-Allegheny).


“Some of these recommendations, I think by the nature of the way we set up the question, will always pit non-traditional public schools—charter—against the traditional public schools because we look at it in the finite institution of our current funding system, but we also need to make sure to include the other side of it: why are we funding the system.”


However, Sen. Jim Brewster (D-Allegheny) noted taxpayers do not realize they are paying for two different public school systems that should be working with one another to provide the best educational experience for children.


“If you look at some of the recommendations, this is fixable,” he said of the differences between charter schools and traditional public schools. “We can create a partnership where everybody exists and can create their product.”


Even further, committee Chairman Sen. Bob Mensch (R-Montgomery) noted that the traditional school and charter school settings face different cost-drivers that make some comparisons inapt.


“We don’t have direct apples to apples in every comparison here,” he said. “We tend to make illogical conclusions if we compare apples to oranges with some of the data.”


A charter reform bill introduced by Rep. Mike Reese (R-Westmoreland) passed the House in late April and is currently awaiting consideration by the Senate Education Committee, which has yet to schedule a vote on the legislation.