Like clockwork, Gov. Tom Wolf is once again attacking charter schools at the behest of his biggest campaign donor, the teachers’ unions. This time, despite his long history of extreme spending and proposed tax increases, he’s acting like a fiscal hawk.
In recent weeks, the governor has marched from school district to school district holding press conferences to promote his charter school funding reform plan that he claims will “save taxpayers $400 million.” But in reality, his plan does no such thing. It would actually cut funding for students who attend public charter schools and transfer it back to districts, even though the students no longer attend a district school. Taxpayers won’t see a dime. School districts will, instead, keep taxpayer dollars meant for students they aren’t teaching.
The crux of Wolf’s plan is to cut cyber charter funding down to a statewide rate of $9,500 per student. This comes after school districts have claimed for years that they can educate children remotely for just $5,000 per student. But per-pupil funding in Pennsylvania public schools currently tops $19,000. If it’s true that remote education costs only $5,000 to $9,500 per student, districts that used remote learning for much (if not all) of the past year should have piles of cash sitting around—their funding wasn’t cut during the pandemic, and they’ve been allocated billions more for Covid-related expenses. The fact that districts are instead calling for additional funding makes their claims about cyber tuition hard to swallow.
That satisfaction is key because, unlike district schools, charter schools only receive funding when families choose them.
The second big chunk of “savings” in Wolf’s plan comes from funding cuts for charter school students with special needs. Wolf claims he wants to fund special education in charter schools the same way it’s done in district schools, but this is misleading, at best. In fact, only 3% of special education spending at district schools is tied to the formula they want to impose on all of charter schools’ special education funding.
If you’ve seen any of Wolf’s press conferences in recent weeks, or read any of the articles written by public education bureaucrats, you have likely heard them repeat the mantra that the cost of cyber charter schools to districts has increased too much—especially this year. This, they say, is unsustainable. But aside from their dubious math, there’s a simple and important reason for the increase in funding going to cyber charter schools: more students are now attending them.
Talk to any cyber school parent and you’ll quickly learn how thankful they are that their children were able to receive an uninterrupted education this year. That satisfaction is key because, unlike district schools, charter schools only receive funding when families choose them.
When a district school doesn’t perform adequately, an assortment of public-school interest groups—teachers unions, school boards, administrators, and other bureaucrats—routinely claim that the culprit is inadequate funding. Even when district schools are performing well, they still call for more funding. Yet, when a charter school underperforms, parents can leave, and, unlike district schools, the school will close.
[Wolf’s plan] would actually cut funding for students who attend public charter schools and transfer it back to districts, even though the students no longer attend a district school.
And let’s not forget another important fact: the purpose of education funding is to educate children. Children don’t belong to a district like some kind of cash cow of state education money. When kids choose charter schools, districts aren’t “losing” money, taxpayers’ money is simply being spent at a charter school instead of a district school. Either way, that money—and less of it in the case of charter schools—is being spent to educate local children. Where that education happens should not be the main concern.
Public school leaders and Gov. Wolf should stop the charade. We all know they aren’t the fiscal watchdogs they’re claiming to be. If they truly care about using taxpayers’ money well, and truly believe that public education should be excellent, they should support all students in their districts no matter what schools they choose. Even the very best school in Pennsylvania isn’t going to work for every child who happens to live near it.
After the struggles of the past year, no family should be pushed around to fit some bureaucrat’s desired funding goals, and no education option that is working for children should be marginalized..
Colleen Hroncich is senior policy analyst at the Commonwealth Foundation and a Visiting Fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.