Williamsport, Pa. — After many schools went virtual during the pandemic, education sector officials reflected upon the financial and performance costs for students, school districts, and taxpayers in a virtual meeeting last week.
The Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) and the Keystone Center for Charter Change held the meeting Friday to discuss issues faced by charter schools in particular.
According to PSBA, Pa. school districts are on track to spend more than $23 billion in taxpayer dollars for mandatory payments to cyber charter and other brick-and-mortar schools, with those costs growing substantially every year. But one superintendent noted that most of that money does not come from the state.
“This needs to be answered by legislators, who are not taking action,” said Dr. Robert J. O’Donnell, superintendent of the State College Area School District. “We’re [his school district] funded by mostly local money here.”
School districts have paid upwards of 253 percent over the last 12 years, but charter enrollment has increased only 118 percent PSBA noted.
“The lack of understanding and the political charge is what lead to such a stalemate,” said Dr. Jacquelyn M. Martin, superintendent of the Keystone Central School District in Clinton County.
More than 22,000 students throughout Pa. have transitioned to cyber charter schools, a direct result from the COVID-19 pandemic. PSBA said this change cost local taxpayers an additional $335 million statewide.
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Charter school tuition payments are now identified as the greatest source of pressure on the budgets of school districts. The politics behind charter schools and school boards was addressed during the meeting.
“You can’t underestimate the campaign contributions which go into this. That contributes,” said Lawrence Feinberg, director of the Keystone Center for Charter Change at Pennsylvania School Boards Association.
Martin said superintendents have met with state legislators, and sat down with local State Rep. Stephanie Borowicz (R-Clinton). “Question is, are they on board? Problem is, there’s lots of differences what the dialogue should be.”
“There is a party line issue,” O’Donnell said. “Not enough people are on board. They [legislators] have their own challenges to get bills moved. I don’t think we’re on the same page. I hope the legislators continue the dialogue.”
“I’m not sure they can agree on a solution. They don’t agree,” Martin added.
“I think when a student is working from home, we all learned from the pandemic that cyber schools performed poorly,” O’Donnell said.
What is the deal with charter schools?
“Some charters are truly nonprofit public schools and do a good job,” said Lisa Longo, who previously served on the Phoenixville, Pa. school board, in Chester County. Longo also served as board president, overseeing multi-million dollar budgets in a very large school district. “Those are mostly ‘brick-and-mortar’ chargers that are in districts. Some districts even have started their own chargers, especially now online chargers.”
Longo said one of the problems are that most of the online programs are ran by for-profit educational companies.
“They haven’t been meeting basic public education standards in Pennsylvania,” Longo explained. “Because of the way special education funding works, charters will get a higher amount to meet special education needs, and some have a very high cost and some have a very low cost.”
It has been said that some charter schools are taking lower-cost special needs students while taking the higher amount of funding, but not providing the necessary level of educational service. Longo said there have been other issues involving levels of teacher certifications. “It really is a complicated issue.”
“In many school districts, the loss of students to charter schools has really devastated their budgets,” Longo said about the current budgetary predicaments school districts face because of current policies, and lack of legislative action in Harrisburg. “This is true especially in school districts which do not receive equitable funding.”
Like school district superintendents, Longo seems to be calling on the state legislature for action.
“The best thing for kids is going to be in putting the same standards for every charter school, and put the funding in place based upon specific needs,” Longo added.