Reform PA cyber charter funding provisions
Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, there has been a huge increase in cyber charter school enrollment across the country, including in Pennsylvania, where cyber charter school enrollment is up by 63% to 62,000 students as of Oct. 1.
This trend should have Pennsylvania parents and taxpayers extremely concerned for two glaring reasons. First, the financial implications this enrollment increase will have on school districts. To put this impact into numbers, school districts can expect as much as a $350 million increase in their cyber charter tuition bills this year alone due to the pandemic-generated cyber charter school enrollment increases. It’s important to keep in mind that this massive sum is only part of the overall $475 million overall charter school tuition increase this school year that school districts are facing in addition to navigating through a global pandemic.
The $475 million increase in charter school tuition this school year effectively nullifies the majority of the federal funds public schools received under the CARES Act. This means most of those funds will not have their intended impact — to aid our public schools in a time of crisis. Moreover, for many districts, their Act 1 index rate will not allow for them to increase property taxes to cover the gap in increased charter school payments, leaving hopelessly unbalanced budgets.
In the Central York School District alone, this has resulted in an increase of 25 students since May at an unanticipated increased cost of $412,581 to the current budget year.
But the financial implications to our school districts is only one concern. The dismal academic performance of Pennsylvania’s cyber charter schools is the other. And this was well established before the pandemic hit. Cyber charter school proficiency rates on the most recent state assessments were on average more than 24% lower; and four-year graduation rates were more than 33% lower than traditional public schools. As a result of this performance, every cyber charter school currently operating has been identified by the Department of Education as needing support and improvement.
Pennsylvania’s charter school law is undeniably outdated, ineffective and damaging to our school districts. Financially, comprehensive charter school reform is essential. The current charter funding mechanism forces school districts to overpay cyber charter schools and overpay for charter special education costs by hundreds of millions of dollars each school year. Until there is a change to the underlying policy, school districts and taxpayers will continue to ultimately foot the bill no matter how you slice it.
Many people in Pennsylvania are rightfully disappointed with the poor quality of cyber charter schools and how they are disproportionately funded at the expense of school districts. Given the circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is especially frustrating since so many more families turned to these virtual operators in desperation. Simply put, Pennsylvania policymakers need to drop the politics and put kids first. Level the playing field for public schools by reforming the charter school law’s antiquated provisions related to cyber charter authorizing and funding.
Eric Wolfgang is president of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.