Finance experts call for charter school funding reforms
Echoing complaints of school superintendents across Western Pennsylvania, public school finance experts Wednesday warned that charter school costs are reaching a breaking point for many of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts.
Finance experts with the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) said lawmakers must change the way charter costs are assessed to local school districts or accept that some school districts are not going to be able to continue to bear the cost of paying hundreds of thousands, and in some cases millions, of dollars in charter school tuition.
The call for change comes as the General Assembly weighs a variety of bills aimed at altering the way the state regulates and finances charter and cyber charter schools that now enroll about 140,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.
Hannah Barrick, of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officers, said charter school costs, which are borne almost entirely by local school districts, totaled $1.8 billion last year and accounted for 37 cents of every new dollar raised in local property taxes.
In some school districts, the costs are even higher.
Enrollment in Pennsylvania’s charter schools grew dramatically over the last decade, increasing from about 78,000 students in 2009-10 to 140,000 this year.
Along with that growth, school districts have seen the bill for charter school tuition grow by double digits five out of the past eight years.
Charter schools, promoted as a free option for public school students whose families wish to look outside their districts, are funded by the students’ local school districts. Tuition is calculated using a complex formula that requires each district to pay charter school fees based on the local district’s cost per student per year. Across the state, those figures ranged from $7,600 to $18,500 per mainstream student to $15,100 to $48,000 per special education student.
While Allegheny County school districts see a mixture of costs for brick-and-mortar and cyber charter schools, Westmoreland County school districts see nearly all costs go toward cyber charter schools. But officials from the tiniest rural schools to the largest city schools say the extra costs, coupled with rising pension and health care costs, add to the burden of balancing school budgets.
PASBO officials said the cost of charter schools is especially onerous to school districts with flat or declining enrollments. Those numbers tend to boost their cost-per-student calculation and increase the tuition they must pay charter schools.
“About 70 percent of school districts across the state are seeing flat or declining enrollment. When you have that, you can see a 5, 6, 7 or 8% charter increase for all charter students even if there is no increase in charter enrollment,” said Tim Shrom, PASBO research director.
He said as charter costs increase, they are added back into the calculation school districts must use to calculate tuition payments, creating a double hit.
Barrick said PASBO supports a measure that would allow school districts to deduct their charter and cyber charter from total expenditures, a move that would reduce their per-student costs.
“It would have allowed school districts to deduct the $1.8 billion from their total expenditures, and it would have saved in excess of $400 million,” Barrick said. “It would affect everyone.”
The school finance organization also was supportive of a move that would allow school districts to use the actual number of students receiving special education services when calculating special education reimbursements. The group estimated that would have provided savings of $65 million statewide.
The group is endorsing yet a third option that would require the state to reimburse public schools for a portion of their charter school tuition.
“There is certainly a better way to fund charter schools, and PASBO urges the General Assembly to prioritize a funding solution that provides needed relief from charter school tuition costs,” Barrick said.
Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, [email protected] or via Twitter .