August 31, 2022

A Bipartisan Call For Charter Reform In Pennsylvania

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Robert Gleason is currently a school board president in Pennsylvania. He served under Governor Richard Thornburgh as secretary of the commonwealth, and transportation commissioner under Governor Tom Ridge. From 2006 until 2017 he was chair of the Pennsylvania Republican Party.

Eugene DePasquale served as a Democratic member of the state general assembly and spent two terms as the auditor general in which capacity he called Pennsylvania’s charter school law the “worst in the nation.” 

After the last round of budget work this summer, these two co-wrote an op-ed for The Morning Call in which they bemoaned the continued failure to fix charter spending in Pennsylvania, a long attempted (but still unsuccessful) priority of the Wolf administration.

As longtime public servants representing both major political parties and as concerned citizens who care about public education in the commonwealth, we are writing to express our great disappointment and frustration with the continued inaction by our state legislature despite broad-based, statewide, bipartisan support for charter school reform. The fact that more than 85% of locally elected school boards (434 of 500), in a state as diverse as ours, have passed formal resolutions calling for a substantive charter school law overhaul should send a clear message to policymakers — it is time for reform.

In Pennsylvania, charters–particularly cyber charters–are taking up mountains of taxpayer money and providing little vale in return.

It is well past time to hold failing charter schools accountable. The data is clear: every cybercharter school in the state has been identified for support and improvement. Proficiency on state assessments and graduation rates at all charter schools have, on average, been substantially lower than those of traditional local public schools.

In the Legislature’s most recent proposal to bring school vouchers to Pennsylvania (HB 2169), half of all charter schools were identified as “low-achieving schools.” It is clear that taxpayers are being taken advantage of while charter students, particularly cybercharter students, are often done a disservice. This must end.

Pennsylvania’s charter sector reaps the benefits of an antiquated system that inflates the payments charters receive (particularly when it comes to students with special needs.

For special education students attending any charter school, the funding formula incorrectly assumes all students will require the same level of services and support, and thus have the same costs. This flaw is critical because school districts are responsible for educating more than 95% of the students with disabilities who require the most extensive services and support. Because tuition rates are based on district expenses, this drastically inflates the tuition rate paid by school districts for special education students and allows charter schools to use precious resources specifically designated for special education services for other purposes.

With Pennsylvania taxpayers on the hook to pay more than $2.6 billion in charter school tuition this year there is an irrefutable connection between charter tuition overpayments and increased local property taxes. The 2022 State of Education Report from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association found 78% of districts surveyed identified charter school tuition payments as one of their top budget pressures.

Folks often bemoan the presence of politics in education, but in this case, two partisan politicians have seen a common need to reform bad laws. Read the full, bipartisan op-ed here.

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