Legislature mulls panel aimed at curbing charter school costs

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
Ethan Moore, 14, who has been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, follows along in his Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School algebra class at his home in Wrightsville, Wednesday, April 6, 2016. Moore has done well in his cyber classes since being pulled from public school because the standardized testing was overwhelming for him. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Watered-down legislation attempting to curb charter school costs is expected to gain more traction in the state Senate Education Committee than more aggressive attempts introduced earlier in the session.

The legislation by Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, would create the Charter School Funding Advisory Commission to analyze and make recommendations to rein in charter school costs that public school districts have griped about for years.

Charter school payments alone would cost the York City School District about $25.1 million next year under the recent 2019-2020 proposed budget — a $1.1 million increase over this year. That's 16% of the district's overall budget.

District officials didn't respond to multiple requests for comment by deadline.

Jim Hanak, CEO of the Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School — the fourth largest in the state with more than 3,000 students — was quick to take issue with Browne's bill, which was referred to the Senate Education Committee earlier this month.

"Not much good for us can come from a commission because of the presuppositions that go into that commission," Hanak said. "The way it's structured, it's all politicians who will be members."

More:OP-ED: Stop federal funding of charter schools

More:York City district aims to recover 75 students with 'aggressive outreach' campaign

The commission would be composed entirely of lawmakers, under Browne's bill. 

The commission would meet with both cyber and brick-and-mortar charter schools as well as public education organizations to work out more effective funding options. It also would review charter school laws, analyze tuition costs and explore other funding issues. 

Within 18 months of its creation, the commission would report its findings and recommendations to the state.

Browne couldn't be reached for comment by deadline.

Browne's bill comes after more direct legislation to curb rising costs shouldered by public schools appears stalled in both chambers of the Legislature.

"(My legislation) would bring immediate relief to school districts,” said state Sen. Judy Schwank, R-Berks, who proposed the more aggressive legislation in February. “They’re desperate for some help. There needs to be some sanity brought to the funding.”

Schwank's bill would specifically target cyber charters, which have historically performed poorly but have been supported under the desire for "school choice." It would force students or their parents to pay tuition to cyber charter schools if the student's school district already offers a full-time cyber program. 

That would ultimately alter the state's charter school law, which requires school districts to pay for students to attend charter schools, allowing students to attend charters tuition-free.

Hanak's school last week passed a resolution in opposition to the legislation, adding that the measures would likely force cyber charter schools out of business and restrict students' academic choices. Schwank's legislation is even more dangerous to charters such as his, he said.

But even Schwank said her bill is likely to remain stalled in committee. Instead, she predicted, Browne's legislation will more likely pique the interest of leaders, who could propel it to a full floor vote.

According to a study conducted this past year by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, while regular education tuition costs $5,000 annually at public schools, those schools on average pay cyber charters $11,300 for a student to attend them.

And as charter schools continue to expand, both the long-term and short-term effects are "consistently negative" for public schools, the report states.

This largely comes from the costs. Under the fastest charter school growth scenario, public school districts will only be able to handle 44% to 68% of the tuition costs when students leave.

Measures to address cyber schools have also been supported by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who has in the past proposed capping charter school costs to no avail.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.