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OP-ED: Potential train wreck coming for public education in Pa.

Richard Robinson
Springettsbury Township
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Who ever said “Every cloud has a silver lining” sure knew what he/she was saying. Take COVID-19. What an opportunity to keep driving public schools in Pennsylvania up to the edge of a cliff and over it.

We all know the pandemic is causing a drop in tax revenue for the state. According to the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, this could mean a decrease of anywhere from $850 million to $1 billion, but who’s counting? At the same time, Pennsylvania charter schools are entitled to over $70 million in federal education stimulus funds this fiscal year to help them get through the financial crisis without experiencing any loss in revenue. What?

Thanks to Pennsylvania’s current charter school funding formula, overpayments to charter schools continue while school districts face critical funding challenges that have been accelerated by COVID-19.

How is this possible you may ask?

When calculating tuition rates for the upcoming school year, school districts are not permitted to deduct payments made to cyber/charter schools from the total expenditure. If this kind of deduction were allowed, tuition rates would decrease. Tuition rates are calculated on budgeted numbers, not actual expenditures. School districts trying to control spending find their costs go up.

Long story short, without real changes in the way our state funds public education, school districts across the state will falter. Tack on the costs associated with keeping children healthy and safe when schools reopen. You get the picture.

For those people who believe our public schools are profiting from the pandemic, a potential train wreck of public education is a good thing. Even some of our elected officials believe public schools have saved huge amounts of money, when a simple call to a school superintendent in their district would correct this false assumption with facts. Who needs facts? Speaking of facts my school district, York Suburban, is required to pay cyber/charter schools $650,000 between March and June.

Here are some more fun facts derived from Pennsylvania Department of Education data. School district payments to charter schools have increased by 229% over 11 years and now exceed $2 billion. In 2018-19, 6 ½ cents of every dollar school districts spent went to charter school payments — more than double what the rate was 10 years earlier.

Now for the best part. Public school charter tuition rates are calculated based on a school district’s expenses for the previous school year. This means widespread changes to education due to COVID-19 have not been taken into account for the tuition rates that a school district must pay charters, even though school districts are losing significant revenues in order to keep up with charter payments. It gets better. Act 13 of 2020 required public school districts to continue paying charter schools the same amount that would have been due to the charters school had public schools not been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Did I mention the school district where I live had shell out $650,000 for March through June?

For the 2019-20 school year the rate for a regular education student from York Suburban enrolled in a cyber/charter was $13,941.94. Multiply this number by 120 students and you get $1,673,032.80. For special education students the rate was $29,556.24. Multiply by 16 and the result is $472,889.84. All these tuition dollars are extracted from a school district that is accountable to its community and delivered to cyber/charter programs with little accountability. It is pretty well known Pennsylvania has one of the worst set of cyber/charter regulations in the nation and probably the known universe.

So what is the opportunity? If you believe the cost of public education in our commonwealth is not worth the investment, urge the General Assembly to do nothing to change the current situation. With declining revenues, increasing cyber tuition costs and inevitable increases in the cost of keeping schools COVID-19-free, school districts will be forced to cut their losses. Not good for schools, not good for children, not good for anybody who thinks education is worthwhile.

If you believe public education is one of the wisest investments of our tax dollars, now is the time to contact your elected representatives to urge reform of the way we make use of our resources. For many of us the closure of public schools has resulted in the realization our schools are irreplaceable centers of our community. Our voices opposing the continuing defunding of public education count now as they have never counted before. 

— Richard Robinson is a resident of Springettsbury Township and a member of the York Suburban school board.