Department of Education, Legislators, and School Leaders Demand Charter School Reform

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HARRISBURG, PA — Pennsylvania Department of Education’s (PDE) Acting Secretary Noe Ortega joined state Senators Lindsey Williams and Jim Brewster, McKeesport Area School District Superintendent Dr. Mark Holtzman, and Deer Lakes School District Superintendent Dr. Janell Logue-Belden othis past Friday for a virtual press conference to discuss bipartisan legislation to hold charter schools accountable to students and taxpayers.

“Students across the commonwealth deserve a quality education that prepares them for success in life,” said Acting Secretary Noe Ortega. “In an effort to ensure the continued mission of high-quality learning in PA, our public schools must be held accountable for their educational outcomes and subject to fair, predictable funding structures and standards.”

The pandemic has increased the urgency for legislative action as charter school and cyber school taxpayer costs and enrollment have soared. Sens. Williams and Brewster are the prime sponsors of SB 27, which protects taxpayers by reining in skyrocketing charter school costs, holds low-performing charter schools accountable to improve the quality of education and increases the transparency of for-profit companies that run many charter schools.

In February, Governor Wolf unveiled common sense and fair bipartisan charter school accountability reform. The plan preserves school choice by fixing Pennsylvania’s outdated charter school law that is regarded as the worst in the country.

Last year, taxpayers spent $2.1 billion on charter schools, including more than $600 million on cyber schools. This year, the burden on taxpayers will increase by more than $400 million. The uncontrolled cost of charter schools can cause school districts to cut educational programs and raise local property taxes.

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“It is our constitutional duty to ensure that all Pennsylvania students receive the quality education they deserve regardless of what school they go to,” said Senator Williams. “The reforms we’ve proposed will help ensure that charter schools are accountable for the taxpayer dollars they receive, that they receive fair funding based on true expenses, and will generally level the playing field between our traditional public schools and our cyber charter schools.”

“The laws governing charter schools need to be reformed. We need greater accountability and transparency so that our children are well educated, and our taxpayers are protected,” said Senator Brewster. “The proposed charter school reform presented by Governor Wolf is a strong start to the conversation to accomplish these two confluent goals.”

The bipartisan plan would fix the state’s charter school law to control rising costs and ensure all students and public schools are treated fairly:

Protect taxpayers and save school districts $229 million a year

School districts would save by better aligning charter school funding to their actual costs.

  • Saves $99 million a year by applying the special education funding formula for traditional public schools to charter schools as recommended by the Bipartisan Special Education Funding Commission. The current flawed process requires school districts to pay charter schools using the outdated assumption that 16 percent of students get special education. As a result, some charters are vastly overpaid for services they do not provide, leaving special education students in school districts and other charter schools less funding.
  • Saves $130 million a year with a single per-student tuition rate that school districts pay cyber schools. Providing an online education costs the same regardless of where the student lives, but cyber schools charge school districts between $9,170 and $22,300 per student, while Intermediate Units only charge $5,400 per online student. Establishing a single statewide rate ensures that school districts are not charged more than $9,500 per regular education student, reflecting the actual cost of an online education by higher-performing cyber schools.
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Protect students by holding low-performing charter schools accountable

  • Creates charter school performance standards that hold low-performing charter schools accountable and reward high-performing charters with more flexibility.
  • Limits cyber school enrollment until their educational quality improves. All 14 cyber schools in Pennsylvania are designated for federal school improvement, with the vast majority amongst the lowest five percent of public schools. A Stanford University report released in 2019 found overwhelming negative results from Pennsylvania’s cyber schools and urged reform by the state.

Protect public trust by making for-profit charter school companies accountable to taxpayers

Despite costing taxpayers more than $2 billion a year, charter schools have little public oversight and no publicly elected school board. For-profit companies that manage many charter schools are not required to have independent financial audits.

  • Require charter schools to have policies to prevent nepotism and conflicts of interest so leaders do not use charter schools for their own financial benefit.
  • Ensure charter schools and their leaders follow the requirements of the State Ethics Commission, since they are public official.

“As the cost of educating our students steadily increases, the McKeesport Area School District maintains our commitment to promoting academic excellence in the face of a pandemic and devastating financial time. We are continuing to do more with much less, as charter school tuition continues to deplete our limited resources to the tune of $9.4 million,” said McKeesport Area School District Superintendent Dr. Mark Holtzman. “Accountability, and other funding sources, must be established before underfunded school districts are unable to meet the needs of their students. The taxpayers in the McKeesport Area cannot possibly continue to shoulder the burden of increasing charter school tuition.”

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“Having a statewide cyber charter tuition rate, transparency, and accountability can stop the ‘robbing public school Peter to pay cyber charter school Paul’,” said Deer Lakes School District Superintendent Dr. Janell Logue-Belden. “The consequence of which drains funds, forces school districts to cut programs and services for most of the students – and raises taxes on property owners.”

For more information on Governor Wolf’s proposed 2021-22 budget specific to education, visit www.budget.pa.gov.

For more information about Pennsylvania’s education policies and programs, please visit the Department of Education’s website at www.education.pa.gov.

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