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Pennsylvania legislators seek change in charter school funding

| Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Local school officials have complained for years that charter schools siphon money from public school districts when students leave them to attend the alternative public schools.

State lawmakers expect to enact changes this fall in the funding formula for charter schools, along with measures to add greater accountability.

In late September, the state House passed a charter school reform bill that calls for tying funding directly to the cost of educating a child. A similar bill is in the state Senate Education Committee and could be sent to the floor for a vote this fall, said Casey Long, a spokesman for Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati, R-Jefferson.

“We believe there is broad-based support to reform charter school funding and oversight,” Long said. “But work needs to be done to come to some agreement on how that should be done.”

Other issues include pension contributions, monitoring of academic achievement and teacher evaluation systems.

Calls to increase oversight of charter schools increased with the indictment in August of Nicholas Trombetta, the founder of the Midland-based PA Cyber charter school.

Trombetta, 58, of East Liverpool, Ohio, has pleaded not guilty to charges claiming he used the state's largest cyber-charter school to skim $1 million for himself.

A portion of the House bill, which passed by a 133-62 vote, addresses concerns school districts have raised about the formula used to channel taxpayer funding to cyber charter schools.

“Under the current system, the majority of the subsidy the state pays us for each student in our district follows the child when they withdraw and enroll in a charter school,” said Alan N. Johnson, acting superintendent of the Woodland Hills School District.

The loss of funding is particularly frustrating when a child attends a cyber charter school.

“It shouldn't cost as much to educate a child who is at home attending classes by computer as it does to teach students in a classroom,” Johnson said. “When a child leaves to attend a charter school, our costs don't go down significantly because we still have to pay for buildings, utilities, staff and programs for all the remaining students. So it's really a matter of fairness.”

The House bill calls for the establishment of a Charter School Funding Commission to develop a funding formula based on the actual cost of educating a child, according to state Rep. Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, the House majority leader.

Patricia Rosetti, CEO of the PA Distance Learning cyber charter school, said she would have “no problem” moving to a formula that uses actual costs to determine state funding.

“We spend every dollar we get, and I'd be happy to show the state exactly where the money is going,” she said.

But simply hiking the percentage of the state subsidy that a local district keeps would hurt students, she said.

“It's a misconception that we have significantly lower costs than traditional schools,” Rosetti said. “The bulk of our budget is for staff, and we try to maintain a 17 to 1 student-to-teacher ratio,” she said. “So if we get less money, we would have to consider increasing class size and reducing the programs we offer.”

School districts retain about 20 percent of the per-pupil state subsidy when a student leaves to attend a charter school, according to Tim Eller, a spokesman for the state Department of Education.

State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, who has been pushing for charter school reform, said increasing the amount the local district can keep would be “the easy answer.”

“The harder answer — but the right one — is to do the work needed to determine what a charter school's actual costs are,” he said. “Some schools would get less and others more, but it would be fair.”

Eller said Gov. Tom Corbett “generally supports” comprehensive reforms for charter schools “as long as they balance the ability to provide quality options for students and ensure that charter schools remain competitive.”

Tony LaRussa is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7987 or tlarussa@tribweb.com.

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