OPED: Wolf's 2016-17 budget plan would close 160 charter schools
Supporters of public school choice next year will celebrate the 20th anniversary of Pennsylvania’s Charter School Law. Since 1997, the number of brick-and-mortar charter schools has grown to 160 and enroll nearly 100,000 students, with tens of thousands more on waiting lists.
At a time when the charter school sector should be gearing up to celebrate this significant milestone, instead, it is preparing to battle anti-school choice advocates’ efforts to close down charter schools and force students back into the very schools they fled that failed them year after year.
Governor Wolf in February proposed a 2016-17 spending plan that calls for cutting nearly $500 million in funding to charter schools, which would result in the shutting down of virtually every charter school across the state.
Without understanding how charter schools are funded, the Wolf administration’s proposal selectively aims to cut by at least 50 percent the per-student funding amount charter schools receive for educating disabled students.
Anti-school choice advocates argue that charter school special education costs are a financial drain on school districts; however, they fail to share all of the facts. According to the Department of Education, for the 2013-14 school year, spending on special education in all public schools totaled $3.8 billion; of this amount, $169 million, or 4.4 percent, was attributed to charter schools.
The Governor’s proposed special education funding formula for charter schools would result in disabled students receiving less funding than school districts receive for regular education students.
Disabled students who attend charter schools deserve access to the same programs, services and funding as their peers who attend traditional public schools.
The Keystone Alliance recognizes that there are some stranded costs in school districts when students leave for a charter school; however, districts that are unwilling to right size themselves after these students leave has resulted in excessive overhead and administrative costs.
The governor’s budget would also eliminate the ability for charter schools to maintain reserve funds for unforeseen expenses and delayed funding – like what is currently taking place as a result of the 2015-16 state budget not being finalized. This not only goes against financial best practices, but it deprives charter schools of the ability to prepare for emergencies, future health care and pension costs, and cash flow. Without access to reserves during a state budget impasse, charter schools would have no choice but to close. Like school districts, charter schools must have the ability to save for a rainy day.
The governor’s proposal fails to take into consideration how charter schools are funded. Charter schools receive the majority of their funding from two sources: school districts and the federal government. However, unlike school districts, charter schools do not have local taxing authority. This is important information that anti-charter school advocates do not recognize, completely ignore or intentionally withhold.
Since taking office, the Wolf administration’s proposals, policies and actions call into question its support of brick-and-mortar charter school students. In fact, this administration’s actions may violate the civil rights of charter school students.
As of the 2013-14 school year, brick-and-mortar charter schools enrolled a higher percentage of low-income students (68 percent) than traditional public schools (42 percent). The data also shows that the percentage of black or African American and Hispanic students enrolled in brick-and-mortar charter schools (70 percent) far outpaces traditional public schools (22 percent).
If many of our elected officials in Harrisburg understood how brick-and-mortar charter schools are funded, they may not propose draconian policies and express rhetoric just to appease traditional public education establishment organizations.
While brick-and-mortar charter schools can exist in any community throughout Pennsylvania, the neighborhoods in which they are located are in need of high-quality public schools. Oftentimes, families are unable to relocate and are forced to send their child to a traditional public school that is academically failing. As taxpayers, these families deserve the opportunity to send their child to a charter school that will meet their needs.
For the past 20 years, brick-and-mortar charter schools have attracted and served families who desired a better education for their children. These schools will only be able to continue providing their students with a high-quality education in a safe environment if we defeat the anti-charter school agenda.
— Tim Eller is executive director of Keystone Alliance for Public Charter Schools