Charter Schools: Fact vs. Fiction
Identifying the issues, influencing legislation and shaping the debate on key education issues
Fact vs. Fiction
1. Fiction: Cyber charter schools are as accountable to the Commonwealth and to taxpayers as traditional public schools.
2. Fiction: House Bill 940 threatens to undermine the quality of education for more than 20,000 students by drastically cutting cyber charter school funding.
Fact: The statewide per-student tuition rate proposed by House Bill 940 is consistent with recommendations made by the Task Force on School Cost Reduction and State Auditor General Jack Wagner. The Task Force on School Cost Reduction, created by Act 1 of 2006 and comprised of 12 individuals with knowledge of the public education system, spent one year analyzing and formulating recommendations for school districts and the General Assembly on how to reduce district expenses. The Task Force concluded, like State Auditor General Jack Wagner, that school districts are overpaying cyber charter schools for the educational services provided because the existing formula structure bases districts’ payments on the cost to educate students in a school district, NOT in a cyber charter school. The Task Force also reported that as a result, cyber charter schools have fund balances ranging from approximately 3 to 49 percent of total expenditures.
House Bill 940 is a fair first step in incremental change to correct the unintended consequences of the charter school law enacted in 1998 and perpetuated by the cyber charter school law in 2002. The bill:
A standard, statewide tuition rate would accomplish two significant feats. First, it would establish payments based on what it actually costs to educate a student through virtual means and for that student to meet the Commonwealth’s academic standards. For almost a decade, districts have made payments to cyber charter schools based on their districts’ own expenses even though advocates of cyber charter schools acknowledge that cyber charter schools are “a different form of public education.”
Second, a statewide tuition rate would reduce districts’ cyber charter schools expenses. Estimates from PDE indicate that House Bill 940 would save school districts and taxpayers more than $18 million statewide. Throughout the debate on property tax reform, school board members and administrators called on the General Assembly to address increasing district expenses and mandates. With the statewide costing-out study completed and the Task Force on School Cost Reduction’s final report released, House Bill 940 is a serious effort by the General Assembly to look at districts’ expenses and figure out a way to reduce the costs in a fair and equitable manner.
3. Fiction: Cyber charter schools are actually a cost-saver for school districts.
Fact: Cyber charter schools have never been, nor will they ever be, a cost-saving mechanism for school districts. Districts’ expenses don’t decrease when students opt to enroll in a cyber charter school. On the contrary, cyber charter schools have actually increased the cost of public education to Pennsylvania’s local taxpayers over the past decade.
Students don’t leave school districts in large groups all within the same age range. Therefore, school districts’ costs remain the same after the students transfer to cyber schools. All classrooms will remain open, which means districts still have the same maintenance and utility expenses. Districts still need the same number of teachers, and therefore, salary, benefit and pension expenses are not reduced. Transportation routes are unchanged, so the number of drivers, buses and fuel costs remain. With all of these costs unchanged and the requirement for districts to make cyber charter school payments, districts are consequently forced to turn to local taxpayers for those funds.
4. Fiction: Cyber charter schools provide equity in education because the education funding follows the child.
Fact: The state share of funding total educational expenses has fallen to a statewide average of 35%. Consequently, much of the funding that “follows” a cyber school student is local taxpayers’ money. The claim that funding follows the child also blatantly disregards the notion that many cyber charter students were formerly home-schooled and not previously covered by public dollars, consequently representing a new expense for school districts and taxpayers.
Fiction: House Bill 940 eliminates the ability of parents to choose the school that best meets the needs of their child.
Fact: House Bill 940 does nothing to limit or eliminate the ability of parents to choose the best delivery system for their child’s education. The legislation merely seeks to amend the cyber charter school law to provide fair and equitable statewide funding for non-special education and special education students, improve academic and fiscal accountability and ensure ethical practices for cyber charter school administrators. Every Pennsylvania student will still have the right to receive an education through: 1) their resident school district; 2) a brick-and-mortar charter school; 3) one of the eleven cyber charter schools; or 4) through a non-public school at a cost assumed by a student’s parent(s).
Fiction: House Bill 940 will reduce the status of Pennsylvania as a leader for virtual education services and cyber charter schools.
Fact: This statement has no basis in fact. In fact, the opposite is true. More school districts are establishing their own virtual education programs or partnering with other districts in their regions to do the same. A standard statewide tuition rate does not mark the end of cyber schooling, but rather the end of artificially high payment levels for cyber schools at the expense of local taxpayers.
Fiction: Inflated cyber charter school fund balances exist, because nearly half of the school districts fail to follow the law and transfer funds for their resident students in a timely manner, if at all.
Fact: If a school district fails to make a payment to a cyber charter school in the manner prescribed by law, Section 1725-A(a)(5) of the Public School Code grants PDE the authority to deduct the estimated amount for a resident student, as documented by the cyber charter school, from a district’s state funding. House Bill 940 does not change this, and in fact, adds a three percent penalty to be assessed on the school district for forwarding to the cyber charter school.
Fiction: The financial impact on school districts is overstated because cyber school costs comprise only a small part of a school district’s budget and because school districts get reimbursed for almost 30% of their charter school costs by the state.
Fact: While cyber school costs are a smaller part of most school district budgets than personnel expenses (including salaries, benefits and pensions), the percentage of dollars allocated to cyber charter schools in comparison to total expenditures is growing. School districts spend millions of dollars in cyber charter school payments each year with no end in sight. Even with up to 30 percent of those costs reimbursed by the Commonwealth, school district costs, as noted above, do not decrease when a student enrolls in cyber school. Therefore, school districts must still recoup the remaining 70 percent or so from local taxpayers. When you consider that cyber charter schools lack the same accountability of school districts, can enroll students that are not eligible for enrollment at their resident school districts and are essentially a form of subsidized home schooling, the financial impact argument takes on much more importance.