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Department of Education, Legislator, and School Leaders Discuss Charter School Accountability Reform

04/15/2021

Harrisburg, PA - Today, Pennsylvania Department of Education’s (PDE) Acting Secretary Noe Ortega joined State Representative Joe Ciresi, West Chester Area School District Superintendent Dr. Jim Scanlon, Souderton Area School District Superintendent Dr. Frank Gallagher, and Tredyffrin/Easttown School District School Board President Michelle Burger for a virtual press conference to discuss bipartisan legislation to hold charter schools accountable to students and taxpayers.

“Students across the commonwealth deserve a quality education, no matter their zip code,” said Acting Secretary Noe Ortega. “In an effort to ensure the continued mission of high-quality learning in PA, our public schools must be held accountable for their educational outcomes and subject to fair, predictable funding structures and standards.”

"Our antiquated, 25-year-old charter school law is failing students, parents, and taxpayers, and now we have a prime opportunity to fix it," said State Representative Joe Ciresi. "Public funds bring a responsibility to the public, and we should ask the same of charter schools as we require for public schools: financial and ethical standards, performance measures, and data-based funding. With the comprehensive reforms in HB 272 we can end overpayments by better aligning funding to the actual cost of educating students, saving a quarter billion dollars a year, ending a major pressure on school district budgets and property taxpayers, and while preserving school choice."

In February, Governor Wolf unveiled common sense and fair bipartisan charter school accountability reform that protects students, parents, and taxpayers. The plan holds low-performing charter schools accountable to improve the quality of education, protects, taxpayers by reining in skyrocketing charter school costs, and increases the transparency of for-profit companies that run many charter schools.

Last year, taxpayers spent $2.1 billion on charter schools, including more than $600 million on cyber schools. This year, the burden on taxpayers will increase by more than $400 million. The uncontrolled cost of charter schools can cause school districts to cut educational programs and raise local property taxes.

The bipartisan plan would fix the state’s charter school law to control rising costs and ensure all students and public school are treated fairly:

Protect taxpayers and save school districts $229 million a year

School districts would save money by better aligning charter school funding to their actual costs.

  • Saves $99 million a year by applying the special education funding formula for traditional public schools to charter schools as recommended by the Bipartisan Special Education Funding Commission. The current flawed process requires school districts to pay charter schools using the outdated assumption that 16 percent of students get special education. As a result, some charters are vastly overpaid for services they do not provide, leaving special education students in school districts and other charter schools less funding.
  • Saves $130 million a year with a single per-student tuition rate that school districts pay cyber schools. Providing an online education costs the same regardless of where the student lives, but cyber schools charge school districts between $9,170 and $22,300 per student, while Intermediate Units only charge $5,400 per online student. Establishing a single statewide rate ensures that school districts are not charged more than $9,500v per regular education student, reflecting the actual cost of an online education by higher-performing cyber schools.

Protect students by holding low-performing charter schools accountable

  • Creates charter school performance standards that hold low-performing charter schools accountable and reward high-performing charters with more flexibility.
  • Limits cyber school enrollment until their educational quality improves. All 14 cyber schools in Pennsylvania are designated for federal school improvement, with the vast majority amongst the lowest five percent of public schools. A Stanford University report released in 2019 found overwhelming negative results from Pennsylvania’s cyber schools and urged reform by the state.

Protect public trust by making for-profit charter school companies accountable to taxpayers

Despite costing taxpayers more than $2 billion a year, charter schools have little public oversight and no publicly elected school board. For-profit companies that manage many charter schools are not required to have independent financial audits.

  • Require charter schools to have policies to prevent nepotism and conflicts of interest so leaders do not use charter schools for their own financial benefit.
  • Ensure charter schools and their leaders follow requirements of the State Ethics Commission, since they are public official.

“Charter school law is outdated and inequitable – with students and taxpayers losing out. PA Taxpayers now spend more than $600 million each year on cyber charter tuition, while most school districts can provide cyber education that is higher quality at a fraction of the cost,” said West Chester Area School District Superintendent Dr. Jim Scanlon. “Why should cyber charters, many of which are for-profit, receive the same tuition reimbursement as brick-and-mortar charters, when they do not have the same kinds of expenses? The only revisions to charter law over the last several years have further undermined local control and reduced our ability to hold charters and cyber charters accountable. It’s time for change.”

“Charter and cyber charter school cost and accountability is a serious problem for a growing majority of school districts and taxpayers in PA. It is one of the most significant challenges facing public education in Pennsylvania. We need greater ability to hold these schools accountable for properly educating students and for properly using the tuition dollars that come directly from our taxpayers,” said Souderton Area School District Superintendent Dr. Frank Gallagher. “Cyber school tuition costs continue to skyrocket, and the results are largely poor. In addition, special education funding of charter schools is completely inequitable and does a serious disservice to the students and taxpayers of our state’s public schools.”

“The Tredyffrin-Easttown School Board and District supports accountability standards that measure student achievement and academic progress not only for public schools but for Charter and Cyber Charter schools,” said Tredyffrin/Easttown School District School Board President Michelle Burger “In some cases, school districts are overpaying for the services students are receiving in Charter schools. Aligning the funding with the actual costs will provide our district and taxpayers with the acknowledgement that we care about how taxpayer dollars are spent.”
 

More information on Governor Wolf’s 2021-22 proposed budget.

For more information on Governor Wolf’s proposed 2021-22 budget specific to education, visit www.budget.pa.gov.

For more information about Pennsylvania’s education policies and programs, please visit the Department of Education’s website at www.education.pa.gov or follow PDE on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest.

MEDIA CONTACT: Kendall Alexander, kenalexand@pa.gov

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