Recent Pennsylvania legislation would overhaul charter school funding

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A new legislative session in Harrisburg has brought a renewed effort at charter school overhaul.

Both Republicans and Democrats have introduced legislation in recent weeks, and school officials are hoping some progress is made this session after the effort remained unfinished at the end of last year.

Proposals by the state House Republican Caucus two weeks ago focus largely on changes in how cyber charter schools are funded.

A wide-ranging bill proposed by state Rep. James Roebuck, D-Philadelphia, last week is more far-reaching, addressing costs at both bricks-and-mortar charter and cyber charter schools and including changes in the way charter schools handle their finances.

If predictions hold true, other proposals are expected to pop up in coming weeks as other legislators and their constituents "place their stakes in the ground," said Robert Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.

On Thursday, the House Education Committee, of which Mr. Roebuck is minority chair, will conduct hearings on bills proposed Feb. 25 by two Republican state representatives, Joe Emrick of Northampton and Mike Reese of Mount Pleasant.

Currently, charter schools receive their tuition from the home districts of their students, based on a state formula that considers the per-pupil cost of each school district, minus deductions for such items as debt service, student transportation and construction.

The result is tuition ranges from $5,794 in the Chester Upland School District to $16,389 in the Lower Merion School District for regular education students. It is substantially higher for special education students, ranging from $12,153 in St. Mary's Area to $41,394 in Lower Merion.

The recently proposed bills call for allowing more deductions for school districts.

Mr. Emrick's proposal would allow school districts to deduct pension payments from their per-student costs prior to calculating payments to cyber charter schools.

Mr. Reese's bill calls for allowing districts to deduct half of the costs of any cyberprogram they offer their students and allows for other deductions in calculating cyberschool tuition based on the premise that cyberschools do not provide the same services as bricks-and-mortar schools.

Those deductions include half of the costs incurred for extracurricular activities and all of the costs associated with "district pupil services" that include student health, food and library services.

While school district leaders support these changes, charter school officials do not.

The Reese bill also calls for direct payment from the state to charter schools, rather than the current system of payment coming from the districts, and for lengthening the term of charters from the current three years for an initial charter and five years for a renewal to five years for the initial charter and 10 years for a renewal.

Charter school officials support the direct pay proposal, while public school officials do not.

A third piece of legislation that was part of the House Republican Caucus charter package, introduced by state Rep. Bernie O'Neill, R-Bucks, would create a commission to address inequities in the special education formula used to calculate payments to charter and cyber charter schools.

Steve Robinson, spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said PSBA representatives hope to talk about all pending charter legislation, including those that are still in the draft form.

He said PSBA "has significant concerns" with the direct pay provision because under the proposal, a school district would not receive documentation from the charter school about the students enrolled each month, making it difficult for school districts to determine if the charter school tuition bills are accurate.

Mr. Roebuck's bill also includes deductions for extracurricular activities and district pupil services and a 50 percent deduction for the costs of any cyberprogram that districts offer to their own students.

But it also adds a number of provisions that address issues those associated with school districts have complained about. Mike Crossey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said Mr. Roebuck's legislation "includes a number of initiatives that PSEA has recommended."

Among those issues are limiting surplus fund balances for charter and cyber charters to a range of between 8 percent to 12 percent of their budgets, with funds in excess of that amount being returned to the school districts, to prevent charters from accruing large fund balances, and eliminating the requirement that districts transport students to charter schools even if they don't transport their own students.

Mr. Roebuck's bill also would limit the amount of special education funding that a charter school can receive per student to the district's total per-pupil expenditure for special education services and would prohibit the use of taxpayer funds for advertising. It also calls for year-end reconciliation of tuition payments with any overpayments returned to the districts.

Mr. Roebuck's bill seeks to establish fiscal and academic accountability for charters, including greater transparency, conflict of interest protections and accountability among charter boards, administrators and for-profit management companies hired to run the schools.

Shauna D'Alessandro, vice president of the West Jefferson Hills school board, said she favors all of the proposed changes that get the cost of charter and cyber charter tuition closer to the actual cost of educating the students in those schools. She believes actual costs at charter schools are lower than the tuition they receive, particularly at cyber charter schools.

Mr. Fayfich said his organization would welcome a study of charter school costs. He said he believes such a study would show that costs vary across the board at charter and cyber charter schools and would result in more accurate funding for charter schools.

education - electionspa - state

Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.


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