Proposed bills begin to address charter school fairness
Charter schools in Pennsylvania are a growth industry funded by taxpayers. More than 105,000 students attend 157 charter schools at physical locations, and 16 "cyber" charter schools that operate over the Internet.
Taxpayers fund the charters through a formula that makes no sense and wastes millions of dollars. The home public school district of each charter and cyber school student pays a tuition based on the district's cost-per-student, with a few deductions.
As noted repeatedly by former Auditor General Jack Wagner, many charter schools and, especially, cyber schools, are paid far more than their actual costs of education. And, since the tuition is rooted in the home district's costs rather than the charter school's actual costs, the range of tuition is enormous, from less than $6,500 per student from the Altoona Area district, to more than $17,750 per student from the Lower Merion district - even if students from those disparate districts are enrolled in the same cyber school. Local districts have also reported discrepancies in April 2012, with Shamokin Area paying $9,700 for a student to attend cyber-school while Southern Columbia pays $7,500 and Line Mountain $9,000.
The best way to fund charters would be for the state to determine the actual costs of education incurred by each and accordingly set tuition. Although a package of bills proposed by the House Republican Caucus does not do that, the program would be far superior to the existing formula.
For example, one bill would eliminate a costly "pension double dip" in the formula. Public schools' teacher pension costs are included in their cost-per-student calculation. That is included in charter tuition, even though the charter schools do not bear that pension cost. Deducting the pension double dip from the tuition formula alone would save $165 million for local districts over five years.
Districts also would be able to reduce their tuition payments by deducting 50 percent of the costs of extracurricular activities, 100 percent of the costs of services offered at physical locations but not by cyber schools, and 50 percent of the cost of any program offered by a cyber school that also is offered by the school district.
Another bill would form a commission to study how to deal with another cost driver, funding for special education students in charter programs.
While reducing districts' costs, the bills also would help to stabilize charter schools. Districts often pay charters late, so the state would pay the charters directly to ensure their cash flow. And charter terms would be increased from three to five years to improve the schools' ability to secure lines of credit and other financing.
On balance, the bills promise far greater fairness in charter funding and should be approved.