Gov. Wolf announces new fees for Pennsylvania charter schools | TribLIVE.com
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Jamie Martines

Gov. Tom Wolf on Wednesday announced that the state Department of Education will enact new fees directed at charter schools.

The “fee-for-service model” will charge charter schools to resolve payment disputes with local school districts. It is part of a sweeping charter school reform plan that Wolf announced earlier this month.

“These fees will help the Pennsylvania Department of Education recoup costs they are incurring right now by charter schools,” Wolf said during a news conference at Twin Rivers Elementary in the McKeesport Area School District. “This will allow more money to go toward where it should go, tax dollars toward educating our children.”

When a student leaves a local school district to attend a charter school — either brick-and-mortar or cyber — state funding follows the student from one school to the other.

If there’s a dispute between the local school district and the charter school over transferring those funds, the charter school can ask the state Department of Education to step in.

The department processed more than 13,500 such requests in 2018, costing taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars, Wolf said.

The new fee, which takes effect Sept. 15, will put financial pressure on charter schools, said Ana Meyers, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.

“It’s another incurred expense, and every little bit counts,” Meyers said. “This should not fall on the charter school or, as a matter of fact, on the Pennsylvania Department of Education either. These are school districts that are not following the law.”

Meyers criticized Wolf for using charter schools as a “scapegoat.” She urged him to consider issues such as pension obligations and salary increases as roots of local school districts’ financial distress, and asked that charter school representatives be included in discussions as the governor rolls out his plans for charter school reform.

School officials from McKeesport Area School District, which serves about 3,500 students, supported the governor’s efforts.

“Charter schools are depleting our resources with no accountability, or without being financially responsible,” said Mark Holtzman, superintendent of McKeesport Area School District. “Taxpayer money is being used to flood the media with commercials and billboards right before the start of school so that they can take our students.”

With about 500 students living in district boundaries attending brick-and-mortar charter schools and 100 students enrolled in cyber charters, the district spends about $7 million — or 10% of its budget — on charter school payments, Holtzman said.

Combined with rising special education costs, pension obligations and debt service payments, this puts a strain on the district’s finances, he said, speaking from the library of the district’s Twin Rivers Elementary School.

“The space is often empty, and the books are often left unattended or left underutilized,” Holtzman said, adding that the district can’t afford to hire a librarian to staff the school’s library, which would serve the school’s 800 students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

Wolf said he’s confident that lawmakers will take up charter school reform when the state legislature reconvenes this month, noting that he’s seen “positive, constructive comments from both Democrats and Republicans in leadership.”

“People have different ideas as to what conclusions we ought to come to, but I don’t think there are too many people who are saying we simply shouldn’t talk about it,” he said.

State Sen. Jim Brewster, D-McKeesport, Rep. Austin Davis, D-McKeesport, and Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Hill District, joined Wolf in McKeesport in support of reform efforts.

“It’s no longer just an urban problem: It’s a suburban problem, it’s a rural problem,” Davis said. “Every school district across this commonwealth is being impacted by charter schools. And we just want to say that everybody should have a level playing field. Everybody should be held to the same standard, and everyone should be accountable, particularly when you’re spending taxpayer dollars.”

The governor’s reform efforts will help bring stability back to local school districts that struggle to compete with charter schools, said Brewster, who has sponsored charter school reform legislation in the past.

“This is the heartbeat of our communities,” he said. “When our school districts shut down, that community dies. There’s no doubt about that.”

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