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On eve of school shutdown, legislators debate ‘fixes’ to charter schools, mental health
Jon Delano of KDKA-TV moderated a March 12 forum on public education at Allegheny Intermediate Unit. Speakers included State Sen. Jim Brewster, state Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa Jr., and state Rep. Dan Miller. (Richard Finch Jr. photo for Tube City Almanac)
On the night before Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all K-12 schools shut down, legislators at a forum in Homestead said the state law governing charter schools is out-of-date and unfair to public school systems.
Frank Dalmas, superintendent of Sto-Rox schools, told the audience at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit that coronavirus wasn’t the biggest threat to his district — charter schools are.
The problem is in the hands of state legislators, he said. “What are you going to do to help solve this problem?” Dalmas asked Democratic legislators who also attended the event on March 12. “Is it your caucus? Is it the Republican caucus? Is it because the charter school lobby is so powerful and strong that you guys can’t come up against it?”
Charter schools are independent but funded by tuition paid by public school districts from the taxes they collect. State Sen. Jim Brewster of McKeesport said the current charter school law has created, in effect, a “dual public” school system.
Along with State Sen. Lindsey Williams of West View, Brewster has introduced Senate Bill 1024. Proponents claim the legislation would increase transparency by requiring charter school trustee meetings to be open to the public; and help control costs by setting tuition for cyber charter schools at a flat $9,500 per student, per year.
Districts currently pay cyber charter school tuition ranging between $7,700 and $21,400 per student, based on a percentage of what districts pay to educate their own students.
Identical legislation, House Bill 2261, has been introduced in the state General Assembly.
The bill has the support of Wolf, who is a Democrat, like Williams and Brewster. They claim the cap on cyber school tuition would save taxpayers $280 million per year.
The General Assembly and Senate are both controlled by the Republican Party, which has declined to take up the legislation.
Brewster said he would like to see additional regulation that would prevent a charter school from opening if it would have an adverse financial affect on the surrounding school district. “That's just good business,” he said.
Charter schools are not the only thing causing financial stress on districts like Sto-Rox, said Samantha Wright, school board president. The district, which includes McKees Rocks and Stowe Twp., serves mostly poorer neighborhoods and has a shrinking tax base, she said.
Sto-Rox faces a $3.7 million deficit this year, which a report from the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators blames in part on the tuition that Sto-Rox pays for charter school and special education students.
It made national headlines in February when teachers asked the public to donate office paper.
Sto-Rox doesn’t resent paying for services such as special education if it can’t provide them internally, Wright said, but it needs additional state funding to make up the costs.
The event was moderated by KDKA-TV (2) money and politics editor Jon Delano. Others in attendance included Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa of Forest Hills and State Rep. Dan Miller of Mt. Lebanon.
State Sen. Pam Iovino of Mt. Lebanon, and state Reps. Austin Davis of McKeesport, Sara Innamorato of Lawrenceville and Jake Wheatley of the Hill District also were invited but did not participate.
Plum Borough School Director Amy Wetmore told Miller that she attended a meeting he hosted to discuss disability and mental health issues in schools.
She said Miller’s proposal to add additional social workers and child psychologists “gave me pause ... because it didn’t address funding issues that may burden school districts already struggling to stay afloat.”
But Brewster said that in light of the many school shootings across the U.S., mental health issues need to be addressed. “I think if we deal with the core cause, we can catch some of these unfortunate horrific events sooner,” Brewster said. “I feel every district should have a psychiatrist, psychologist or counselor on site.”
If cyber charter school tuition was capped, Brewster said, the $280 million that would be saved could pay for those additional mental health professionals.
“If we can pull this off, the money will come from correcting the funding formula — it won’t be a burden on anyone in this room,” he said.
Costa said legislators were able to incorporate language into the state’s $60 million school safety program that would allow districts to use a portion of the funding for mental health services.
School districts generally used the funds for “brick-and-mortar type things,” Costa said, “but now we are seeing more schools looking to fund those types of professionals.”
Delano closed the event asking about a reported teacher shortage in Pennsylvania. In 2010-11, Delano said, there were 21,000 certified teachers in Pennsylvania, and last year there were only 7,600.
Miller argued that public school teachers who were already feeling stressed and frustrated have been “demonized” over their pensions and benefits.
“Teachers were pushed out of our system,” he said. “A bunch of them went to Virginia or Maryland or wherever to try and stay within the teaching field. Some of them got out, not because they wanted to, but because we didn’t pay them enough. They had to get another job.”
Miller said he believes the pressure on teachers is getting worse, and that the trend needs to be reversed.
“We need to go back to when being a teacher was something you aspire to be,” he said.
Richard Finch Jr. is a freelance writer who covers news from a variety of communities for Tube City Almanac. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published March 30, 2020.