Charter reform proposal must tackle cost inequity, local school officials say

The Helan Thackston Charter School sits empty and for sale along E. Philadelphia Street. Gov. Tom Wolf recently rolled out a slew of proposed changes to how charter schools are funded and regulated. August 15, 2019.
John A. Pavoncello photo

It's clear that the funding formula for Pennsylvania charter schools does not equate tuition costs with the cost of education — with skyrocketing price tags and a huge discrepancy between districts, say local superintendents.

"For 15 years, I've been waiting for someone to tackle this problem," said Northern York County Superintendent Eric Eshbach.

Northern York paid about $10,000 in regular education tuition and about $19,000 for special education last year to charter schools.

Spring Grove Area School District paid about $1.4 million combined, and West York Area School District paid about $2.7 million — with about $1.19 million allocated to cyber charters.

That's the highest cost to Spring Grove yet, said the district's superintendent, George Ioannidis, and the biggest increase from one year to the next. Last year was just over $1 million.

On Tuesday, Gov. Tom Wolf rolled out a slew of proposed changes to how charter schools are funded and regulated — some executive actions and some proposed legislative changes — aimed at addressing cost and accountability.

Among them were regulations ensuring boards of trustees and operating companies be free from conflicts of interest and that charters not overcharge for services; enrollment caps in low-performing schools; and a moratorium on new cyber charters. 

"I think it's long overdue," said York Suburban Superintendent Timothy Williams on accountability. "If we’re truly going to embrace competition, then student performance should be part of that."

Spring Grove has struggled with receiving timely and accurate student data from both cyber and brick-and-mortar institutions in the past, Ioannidis said, and he would welcome more checks and balances.

More:GOP lawmakers pitch property tax elimination in York County

But critics said the governor should have taken an inclusive approach to the issues.

State Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York Township, said the governor's timing was poor, as a bipartisan House charter school package had just made its way to the state Senate Education Committee when Wolf made his announcement.

She said he should want to work together with legislators and all stakeholders, and Ana Meyers, executive director of the PA Coalition for Public Charter Schools, agreed.

That coalition also worked with state Rep. Mike Reese, R-Mount Pleasant, on House Bill 355, which would address ethics and accountability for charter schools, Meyers said.

"We are all for more accountability," she said. "We have nothing to hide."

Critics of charters schools in states including Michigan, Florida, Ohio, Arizona and Pennsylvania have detailed issues such as poor financial management, grant money used on unopened schools and poor academic performance. 

California lawmakers are also considering a moratorium on new charter schools.

The current funding system, based on a formula built into Pennsylvania's charter school law in 1997, bases tuition costs on a district's budgeted expenditures and average enrollment.

The total cost to school districts in the 2017-18 school year was $1.8 billion — a 10% increase over the prior year, according to the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials.

More:Legislature mulls panel aimed at curbing charter school costs

Last year, regular education charter school tuition across school districts ranged from $7,800 to $21,000 per student, a PASBO news release states.

Eshbach is not opposed to cyber education, but he said the district's own online program, at about $3,500, is one-third the cost of its tuition to cyber charters.

Some charters offer free tuition to students, but taxpayers are still paying for it, and one cyber charter's advertising budget, for example, was between $3 million and $4 million, Williams said.

Meyers agreed that the cost should be addressed but said that even now charters in the state receive 15% less revenue per student than public schools.

York Academy Upper School chief executive officer Angela Sugarek. August 15, 2019.
John A. Pavoncello photo

"The state should be clear on what (it thinks) the cost is to educate a child," said Angela Sugarek, chief executive officer of York Academy Regional Charter School, in York City, which is chartered by Central York, York Suburban and York City school districts. 

She said tuition should be based on cost of service, not district expenditures.

Sugarek agreed that Wolf should have focused on legislation already in the works, adding that though some charters are struggling academically, it's not a reason to "punish everyone else."

Lincoln Charter School has only 15% of its students proficient or advanced in Pennsylvania System of School Assessment math, for example, according to 2018 Pennsylvania Value-Added Assessment System data, which also measures growth.

Jeanna Rodreguiz reads an "I Believe" letter from her children Peter, 8 at left, and Ananily, 6, during the Lincoln Charter School Muffins with Mom program, Wednesday, March 20, 2019.
John A. Pavoncello photo

York Academy fared better, with 42.9% in math — only a few points below the 45.25% average of the county’s 16 school districts.

Academic success is important, but those standards should be applied across the board for both charters and public schools, local school officials said.

Only 7% of students in the state attend charters, Meyers said, yet there are many underperforming public schools. 

And placing caps on enrollment for low-performing charters and a moratorium on cyber charters, as Wolf proposed, would limit school choice while there's a huge demand for it.

Thousands are on waiting lists, and in Philadelphia alone, 130,000 students applied for charter spots last year, Meyers said.

"We feel our students are being picked on," she said.