Pennsylvania charter schools accuse Wolf of an ‘unrelenting attack’
February 15, 2016 12:00 AM
Robert MacPherson/AFP/Getty Images
By Mary Niederberger / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Charter school advocacy groups have come out swinging in the wake of funding overhauls in Gov. Tom Wolf’s 2016-17 proposed education budget that they say will drain $488 million from charter school coffers across the state.
“The governor is continuing his unrelenting attack on charter schools and the children in those schools,” said Robert Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.
Among the proposed overhauls announced last week is the requirement that charter schools return to school districts all money in their reserve funds at the end of each school year. Another would reduce cyber charter tuition amounts to levels that reflect the school’s “structural realities” of not maintaining the same physical facilities as brick-and-mortar charter schools.
In addition, the Democratic governor proposes imposing the same three-tiered special education funding formula on charter schools as has been implemented in school districts. He also would eliminate the so-called pension double-dip, which has school districts and the state providing reimbursement for charter school costs.
The funding cut proposals come a month after Mr. Wolf used charter school’s portion of the state Ready to Learn Block Grant money — intended for programs aimed to improve achievement — to reimburse school districts for a part of their charter school tuition costs.
That move, along with other decisions regarding charter school funding, prompted Mr. Fayfich’s group and 20 charter schools to file legal action Feb. 5 in Commonwealth Court against the state Department of Education.
At the time of the filing, Mr. Fayfich said the actions taken by the Education Department and Mr. Wolf would “undermine the financial viability of every charter school in the state.”
The actions taken by the Wolf administration appear to swing the pendulum on charter school issues in the opposite direction of the previous administration of Gov. Tom Corbett. Mr. Corbett, a Republican, was a target of school district officials who accused him of being pro-charter school.
Mr. Wolf’s 2016-17 budget proposes overhauls to the charter system that will save millions of dollars and better align tuition payments with actual costs, creating equity and fairness in schools across the commonwealth.
According to figures in the budget proposal, $148 million currently sits in the reserves of charter schools that he would like to return to school districts.
But Mr. Fayfich, and Tim Eller, executive director for the Keystone Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said taking away a charter school’s ability to have a reserve fund is not only unfair but fiscally irresponsible.
“It totally goes against best practices that school districts follow when maintaining fund balances. It’s what you have for when the roof blows off, the boiler needs to be repaired or when you have cash flow problems like the one charter schools are having now because of the state budget impasse,” Mr. Eller said.
“Whether you are in the private sector or government sector, holding onto reserve funds is fiscally prudent for any organization.”
In his budget proposal, Mr.Wolf said the special education funding change would be phased in over three years and would adjust charter school reimbursements “to better reflect actual costs of educating students with special needs.”
School district officials have long complained that the flat-rate special education tuition currently paid to charter schools — sometimes more than twice the amount of regular education — is excessive and an unfair burden on districts.
Changing the special education formula to the three-tiered system created by the bipartisan Special Education Funding Commission is projected to save $180 million.
The system uses one of three multipliers — based on the severity of a student’s disability — to determine the special education reimbursement rate.
Even though school districts have already had the formula imposed, Mr. Eller said it was unfair for it to be forced upon charter schools because charter schools don’t have the ability to raise tax revenue if the special education funds fall short of expenses.
Lowering tuition to cyber charter schools, based on the theory that they don’t have facility costs is also unfair, the advocates said. The move is projected to reduce cyber tuition by $50 million.
Mr. Eller, whose organization represents brick-and-mortar charters, said he understands that cyber charters have expenses his schools do not. They include the cost of providing and shipping computer equipment to students and payment for Internet connections.
Mr. Fayfich and Mr. Eller said they don’t oppose an examination of charter school costs but that they will fight the arbitrary cuts proposed in the budget.
“We are not trying to be unreasonable. We hope that others see the light of day and come to agreement,” Mr. Eller said.
Mary Niederberger; email@example.com, 412-263-1590. On Twitter @MaryNied.
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