HARRISBURG — Traditional public school leaders are welcoming Gov. Tom Wolf’s call for the Legislature to pass a comprehensive reform of the state’s law governing charter schools, a plan Wolf says will save local school districts $280 million.
“Our charter school system is in desperate need of reform. It’s time to close the loopholes, it’s time to establish real standards and it’s time to level the playing field,” Wolf said in his budget address on Tuesday.
Charter officials blasted the plan, saying they’d been seeking a compromise with the governor since August when he announced his intention to propose charter reforms.
“The Governor’s actions show that this ‘reform’ plan is only to appease his political allies, who want nothing more than see charter schools close and reinstate school districts’ monopoly on public education,” said Ana Meyers, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Public Charter Schools. “Charter school students and their families are not second-class citizens. These parents pay their taxes and their children attend a PA-designated public school. There is no reason why charter school students deserve less financial support than their district peers,” she said.
Wolf’s plan would change the way charters are paid for teaching special education students and it would use a uniform tuition rate for all cyber charter schools.
For traditional public schools, the state provides four levels special education funding based on the amount of services required by each student. But charter schools have been getting the same rate for educating special education students regardless of the amount of service the student requires.
Wolf’s office projects that making the change would save local school districts $147 million a year.
In addition, Wolf is urging the General Assembly to pass legislation to set a uniform tuition rate for cyber school students regardless of where they live.
Currently, the tuition paid to cyber schools varies from district to district and ranges from $7,700 a year to $21,000.
Under Wolf’s plan, cyber student tuition would be set at $9,500 per student.
Officials representing traditional public schools have complained that the tuition paid to cyber schools exceeds the actual cost of educating students in the online programs.
The move to a uniform tuition rate would save local school districts $133 million a year.
“Public funds have been paid to charter schools in a manner that does not represent the actual cost it takes to run these programs,” said Nathan Mains, chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania School Board Association. “We commend the Governor for pushing for charter change and to address the overwhelming concerns of school districts.”
Wolf’s proposed rate is still higher than traditional school officials believe is appropriate, but the move to set a uniform rate is welcome, said Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.
“We’d like to see it get done,” DiRocco said. Local school districts paid $1.8 billion in tuition to charter schools in 2017-18 and those tuition bills have been going up 8-10% a year, DiRocco said.
In addition to those proposals, Wolf is also calling on the General Assembly to enact reforms to force charter school administrators to operate more transparently and to follow the same sort of ethics rules that other public school officials must follow, DiRocco said.
“If you’re going to be a public school, you should follow the same rules as public schools,” he said.
Wolf’s plan isn’t the only proposal circulating at the Capitol though.
Last month, the House Education Committee held a hearing on legislation that would require every school district to offer online classes while offering parents with two alternative cyber school options for their children. That measure, HB 1897, was authored by state Rep. Curt Sonney, R-Erie County, the chairman of the House Education Committee. If that measure became law, the existing cyber charters would only be able to survive by getting hired by local school districts as the vendors providing the alternative to the district-run online programs.
Cyber school operators have opposed Sonney’s legislation.
While many local school districts already offer online programs, thousands of parents have enrolled their children in programs run by the independent cyber schools, said John Chandler, the CEO of PA Virtual Charter School.
“Whether it is simply an unwillingness of traditional districts to offer quality cyber programs, an inability of traditional districts due to economies of scale to offer cyber programs that parents will willingly choose, or bad experiences with their local traditional school — parents are not choosing their local district cyber programs and instead are choosing what they believe is best for their child,” Chandler said. “There are 37,000 children this year in independent statewide cyber charter schools.”
DiRocco said that legislation “is more radical” than Wolf’s proposal, but his organization would support either the governor’s plan or Sonney’s legislation.