We appreciate LNP | LancasterOnline’s recent editorial (“Children first,” Feb. 5) calling on state lawmakers to “fairly, equitably and adequately fund education.”
We have been advocating for this for many years. And, like the Editorial Board, we recognize the political challenges of finding sustainable revenue sources to meet this need. One-time boosts will not help the School District of Lancaster deal with its structural deficit.
That’s why we are writing today in support of a secondary element in Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposal, but one that can have a significant long-term impact — charter school reform.
First, we want to reiterate what we have long said: We are not opposed to school choice. Our school district has a long partnership with a charter school in our community, La Academia, and we have considered others. We believe every child deserves an excellent education.
However, Pennsylvania’s 25-year-old charter school law is failing children, parents and taxpayers. Charter schools are public schools, funded by local school districts, and the costs of these schools are skyrocketing. It is draining funding from traditional schools at a time when we can least afford it.
Our district is facing a deficit of about $13 million for the 2021-2022 school year, and we project this deficit to continue to grow in the coming years. Our charter school payments are up $2.5 million this year alone, driven by a 65% increase in students attending cybercharter schools.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many families turned to cybercharter schools, even in districts that offer in-house cyber programs or other virtual instructional options. The problem is, many of these charter schools are badly underperforming. Charter schools represent 6% of all public schools statewide but account for roughly 25% of the lowest performing schools in the state.
Additionally, charter schools have engaged in questionable operational practices, including spending millions on advertising and lobbying, with far less fiscal oversight or transparency than we have.
These concerns are why Gov. Wolf’s proposals deserve bipartisan support.
The governor would establish a statewide cybercharter tuition rate that is much more in line with actual expenses. The 14 cybercharter schools in Pennsylvania charge school districts between an estimated $9,170 and $22,300 per student per year for regular education students, even though it costs most school districts far less for in-house online programs.
Our tuition payments are $13,000 for regular education students and $30,000 for special education students. Currently, our tuition payment is based on our budget — the bigger our budget gets, the more we send to charter schools.
Perversely, that means that the more we spend in cyber tuition, the higher cyber tuition becomes.
Wolf’s plan also aligns special education funding to actual costs, using the state’s special education funding formula. Currently, our special education tuition payments are calculated on the assumption that we have a special education population of 16%. (Ours is actually more than 19%.) Tuition should be based on the services outlined in a student’s Individualized Education Plan.
The current formula is also an incentive to game the system. A charter school in Centre County was caught overidentifying special needs students by as much as 1,000%, mostly for services that cost far less than the special education tuition it was receiving. The school eventually closed, but State College Area taxpayers will never recoup their losses.
Finally, the governor’s plan creates statewide performance standards and accountability measures for charter schools. High-performing charters would be rewarded with enhanced flexibility and autonomy, while low-performing charters would be limited from enrolling new students until their outcomes improve.
LEARN PA, an advocacy group of superintendents, projects that within the next year $1 in every $5 paid in local property taxes will go to charter school costs. An investment of that scale should provide opportunities for students and families, not take them away. But that’s what is happening due to Pennsylvania’s broken charter school system.
The governor’s office estimates these reforms could save school districts more nearly $230 million every year. That figure may not draw headlines like his proposal for basic education funding. But it makes a real difference to school districts like ours, and it doesn’t require the heavy lift of finding new revenues.
We urge our leaders in Harrisburg to make these commonsense reforms.
Damaris Rau is superintendent of the School District of Lancaster. Edith Gallagher is president of the school board.