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Charter School Tuition Gets Statewide Attention

Districts want relief from fees; charters say districts don’t appreciate the need

By Adam Reinherz
The Tube City Almanac
May 31, 2022
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News, State & Region

With charter school tuition payments rising faster than enrollments, public school districts are asking the Pennsylvania state legislature for relief.

According to Pennsylvania’s quarter-century-old law, charter schools do not charge students tuition. Instead, the majority of charter school funding comes from each student’s district of residence.

But local charter school officials said that their facilities serve poor students and fill vital educational needs in the communities where they operate. One local charter administrator who asked not to be identified by name said their school and others like it are getting “a bad rap.”

McKeesport Area School District Superintendent Mark Holtzman Jr. is one of the local officials who have been calling attention to the expense that public school systems incur from charters.

Some state officials say: Time to act

Last month, legislators and educators addressed a House Democratic Policy Committee about the state’s 1997 Charter Schools Act.

State Rep. Mary Issacson, a Democrat from Philadelphia, told colleagues “we need to review the charter school laws that have not been changed in 25 years and assess proper funding levels.”

At an April school board meeting, Holtzman, who will soon take a job in Beaver County, said that charter schools account for nearly 18 percent of the McKeesport Area district’s $81 million dollar budget.

Uri Monson, chief financial officer at the School District of Philadelphia, said his district spends an even higher percentage of its budget on charter school reimbursements than McKeesport Area.

In 2020-21, the Philadelphia district’s total operating expenses were $3.4 billion. Of that, nearly $1.2 billion was spent on charter school payments, with $881.8 million of those dollars coming from property taxes, Monson said during last month’s statewide meeting.

School districts claim reimbursements exceed expenses

Lawrence A. Feinberg, director of Keystone Center for Charter Change, told legislators that charter schools receive funding exceeding the amount needed to educate their enrolled students.

The 179 charter and cyber charter schools authorized to operate in Pennsylvania, will receive nearly $3 billion this year. And while enrollments at charter schools are increasing, because of what Feinberg called a “flaw in the funding mechanism” is causing tuition costs to rise faster than enrollments.

Between 2014 and 2020, charter school enrollment grew 13.9 percent but charter school tuition costs rose 52.8 percent, according to Feinberg.

Throughout the state, school district leaders have accused charter schools of hampering district budgets and harming their own students.

Charters: All schools have shared mission to educate

But Tina Chekan, CEO and superintendent of Propel Schools said the educational entities need to remember their shared mission.

“Charter schools originated as incubators of innovative learning. We have always and will always welcome opportunities for collaboration with district leaders so that all students in our region have the opportunity to receive the best possible education,” Chekan said. “The goals of traditional public school leaders and charter school leaders are the same. We all desire outcomes that ensure excellence in education.”

Pittsburgh-based Propel Schools serves approximately 4,000 students at 13 Allegheny County locations, including Propel McKeesport, a kindergarten through eighth-grade school that opened in 2005.

According to Propel, 80 percent of Propel students qualify for federal free and reduced-cost lunch programs; 80 percent of students are a minority and 17 percent of Propel students have special needs.

Chekan noted that she and her colleagues take their educational responsibilities seriously and that Propel believes “families should have the right to choose a public school that is best suited for their child’s learning needs.”

Alternative for students who ‘slip through the cracks’

An administrator from Young Scholars of McKeesport Charter School, who wished to remain anonymous, said charter schools “get a bad rap” from district leaders without fair recognition of services provided.

“We are just providing an alternative for families,” the administrator said. “Sometimes within the public school settings some kids slip through the cracks and go unnoticed.” Young Scholars’ goal is to help children and their families by providing smaller class sizes and “more purposeful teaching,” the educator said.

Materials from Young Scholars charter school indicate that class sizes are limited to 23 students, and that in an effort to foster cultural awareness students are exposed to Spanish and Turkish beginning in kindergarten. Instruction is differentiated thanks to multiple educators per class.

Within K-2, there are two teachers per room; and within grades 3-8, reading and math intervention teachers provide both push-in (occuring in student’s classroom) and pull-out (occuring in separate setting) services.

Across state, charter school reimbursements vary widely

Whereas school leaders across institutions often agree on a shared goal of educating students, disagreements arise regarding expenses.

Within Pennsylvania, charter schools receive “no less than the average district per-pupil budgeted expenditure of the previous school year, minus the budgeted expenditures for nonpublic school programs, adult education programs, community/junior college programs, student transportation services, special education programs, facilities acquisition, construction and improvement services, and other financing uses,” according to statewide legislation.

What this means on a local level, however, is that charter school tuition rates differ greatly across the state.

According to Pennsylvania’s Department of Education, rates ranged between nearly $9,000-$23,000 per student for non-special education and $18,000-$47,000 per student for special education.

Chekan noted that the funding formula “is not equitable,” and said, “Charter schools are public schools yet receive an average of $3,000 less funding per pupil.”

School board association: Charter schools exempt from some mandates

A Pennsylvania School Boards Association report agreed that charter schools receive less funding per student than school districts, but said charter schools “directly receive some of the same state and federal funding as school districts and are exempt from many costly mandates placed on school districts.”

A separate PSBA task force suggested several means of reforming costs, including applying a statewide tuition rate of “no more than $9,500 for all students enrolled in a cyber charter school.”

Pennsylvania possesses 179 charter schools and cyber charter schools. Every one of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties have “students enrolled in some form of charter school,” Pottstown School District Superintendent and League of Urban Schools Caucus President Stephen J. Rodriguez told legislators.

Educators, policy experts and elected officials have spent two decades discussing reform, he said. “It is time to act.”

Adam Reinherz is a Pittsburgh-based journalist. He can be reached at adam.reinherz@gmail.com.

Originally published May 31, 2022.

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