Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Photo by Lynne Deliman
State plans for charter school reform took a back seat after the onset of COVID-19 this year. Smaller public schools like Sto-Rox and Cornell continue struggling to fund these charters.
By Jamie Wiggan
A stated priority of Gov. Tom Wolf and Democratic lawmakers earlier in the year, charter school reform proposals were no longer a talking point when the general assembly finalized a six-month spending plan Nov. 20.
Meanwhile, local school officials say the growing share of district expenses claimed by cyber and charter schools is leading them to breaking point.
We’re monitoring “everything we have control of,” Sto-Rox Superintendent Frank Dalmas said during a Nov. 19 school board meeting. “Everything else is up to the state, it’s up to the legislators — and they’re not doing anything about it.”
Unveiled in early February, Wolf’s budget proposal called for education reforms that would redirect $280 million from charter schools to public schools each tax year.
The reforms were spelled out in a 120-page bill introduced, but later withdrawn, in both the state House and Senate. The package called for regulation on tuition costs and requirements that cyber and charter schools adhere to open meeting laws and additional transparency provisions.
Ultimately the coronavirus outbreak diverted attention away from ambitious policy reforms, with Pennsylvania lawmakers instead forced to pass two short-term spending plans that relied on federal aid to balance the books.
During their November meeting, Sto-Rox officials discussed the cost-saving measures they had resorted to in recent years, ranging from a fundraiser for paper supplies to grant-writing efforts and maintaining lower-than-average teacher salaries.
According to Dalmas, charter and cyber schools are the biggest drain on the district’s funds and pose the most threat to its financial solvency.
While publicly-funded, charter schools aren’t subject to all the same regulations as traditional public schools and are therefore championed by some as a way of creating more choice for families unable to afford private education.
Instead of charging tuition fees to students, charter schools receive funds from school districts for each attending student who resides there. Cyber schools are online-only institutions that function similarly.
Often districts spend more on each student enrolled in charters and cybers than those in public schools. Smaller districts with high charter school enrollment are therefore more vulnerable to resultant budgetary issues.
According to preliminary numbers, more than 25% of the Sto-Rox district’s $30 million budget is earmarked for tuition and transportation expenses for students enrolled in cyber and charter schools during the 2019-2020 year.
Statewide, the proportion of district spending on charter school tuition is much lower.
Data compiled by the Pennsylvania School Board Association show the average across all districts at just 6% during 2017-18.
Sto-Rox is heavily indebted and projects further losses to the tune of $3 million in its most recent spending plan, passed in June. Eric Brandenburg, a business consultant who works for Sto-Rox, said there’s no clear pathway for balancing the budget in the coming years.
Cornell, another small district with a fragile tax base, also carries a general fund deficit and lays some of the blame on charter schools. During a board meeting in February shortly after Wolf’s office promoted the reform bills in the budget proposal, Cornell directors voted to submit a letter in their support.
“I don’t have a problem with charter schools,” Patrick Berdine, Cornell’s business manager, said when commending the bill to the board. “I have a problem with the way they are funded.”
State Rep. Dan Deasy (D-27), who opposed the Nov. 20 spending plan, also said he supports charter schools in theory but believes there are funding concerns to be addressed.
“The problem I have with charter schools is, I think they should have the same accountability standards as public schools,” he said. “…If they would follow the same rules and guidelines as our public school systems, we could save money.”
Deasy said regardless of the coronavirus impact, charter school reforms are unlikely to gain traction while Republicans maintain control of the legislature. In the meantime, he suggested districts like Sto-Rox and Cornell should focus on ways to retain students in their public systems.
The $600,000 turf field opened last summer after several years of planning and fundraising, and the recent creation of an in-house cyber option at Sto-Rox represent moves in the right direction, he said.
Whether they will prove enough is another question.
“During this pandemic, we definitely have seen the disparity between the haves and have-nots in terms of education,” Deasy said.