It's time to hold charter schools accountable
Charter schools are public schools yet state lawmakers and the Corbett administration continue to allow them to evade the same funding restrictions and accountability standards that apply to conventional public schools.
The U.S. Department of Education recently stopped the administration from diluting charters' standardized test standards to make them appear stronger when compared with conventional public schools.
Charter proponents in the state Legislature, meanwhile, steadfastly have refused to alter the funding formula for charters, often allowing them to accrue public funding that is far beyond their actual costs of educating students.
The latest case in point is a performance audit of the giant Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School by Auditor General Jack Wagner's office. That online school has 11,000 students statewide.
State law allows charters to collect tuition from their students' home districts, based on the home district's cost-per-student rather than on each charter school's actual cost. Wagner's audit found that tuition paid to PA Cyber ranged $6,414 per student by the Altoona Area School District to $17,755 per student from the Lower Merion School District, near Philadelphia.
The audit found that the tuitions well exceed PA Cyber's actual costs. The charter school amassed surpluses totaling about $25 million over the last two years, far beyond the reserve levels that state law allows for public school districts. And it amassed those totals while also amassing the third highest business expenses among the state's 500 school districts and 127 charter schools.
State lawmakers should adopt a new funding formula for all charters based on their actual costs rather than on the per-student costs of students' home districts. State law also should require charters to file for federal tax-exempt organization status, which would result in far greater transparency.
The PA Cyber audit was the latest in a series by Wagner detailing the need for major reforms in charter school financing and, in many cases, operations. Lawmakers, however, have worked around the edges rather than tackling the core issues. This time, they should use the audit as a catalyst for comprehensive reforms.