(The Center Square) – A bill altering the state’s public school funding formula passed the lower chamber Monday, spawning both fanfare and consternation among lawmakers.

While supporters call the plan a victory for students held back by economic disparities, critics point out that 64 of the bill’s 87 pages focus on cutting financial support and tightening regulations for charter schools to save money.

Dr. Anne Clark, CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition for Public Charter Schools, scoffed at a provision that caps tuition paid by districts to $8,000 per student and stringent regulations that she deems misleading and unnecessary.

“Contrary to the blanket assertion that cyber charter schools operate at lower costs, these schools face unique and often higher expenses,” she said Monday. “Faculty salaries remain comparable to traditional schools, but cyber charters incur significant costs for technical infrastructure, cybersecurity, and individualized student support services.”

The cap would save schools a collective $530 million, which, according to the bill’s fiscal note, represents about 49 percent of districts’ reported tuition costs.

Tuition for online charters fluctuates between $9,000 and $23,000 per student. In 2023, 179 charter schools, fourteen of which are exclusively online, served 164,000 students.

Clark said the proposal ignores the financial realities of running cyber charter schools, which are often respite for vulnerable students with medical conditions, special learning needs or bullying trauma.

“The long-term impact on Pennsylvania’s educational and economic future could be detrimental, as limiting school choice undermines efforts to create a diverse and dynamic educational ecosystem,” she said.

Many school board officials, however, say the cap updates the 27-year-old law that first established cyber charters, which costs districts $455 million each year in overpayments.

Kevin Busher, chief advocacy officer for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said during an April press conference that a funding imbalance for special education students – which often require less expensive learning supports than their brick-and-mortar counterparts – further exacerbates the issue.

“School boards are forced to choose between raising property taxes on their neighbors, cutting programs and services provided to their students, or postponing critical building, technology, or curriculum upgrades in order to pay their mandatory cyber charter tuition bills,” he said. “That’s just not fair to our taxpayers and to our students.” 

The bill also limits fund balances charter schools can carry to shield against budget troubles and tax increases: a sliding scale of eight percent to twelve percent depending on a school’s expenses.

No such restrictions exist for traditional schools, according to Elizabeth Stelle, director of policy analysis for the Commonwealth Foundation. In an op-ed published Saturday, Stelle said some districts, including Highlands and Allegheny Valley in western Pennsylvania, have more than 50 percent saved.

The foundation says districts already subtract certain operational expenses from tuition upfront, like transportation and facilities maintenance, which realizes a 27 percent cost savings.

Christen Smith is a regional editor for The Center Square and co-host of Pennsylvania in Focus, a weekly podcast on America’s Talking Network. Find her work in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Broad + Liberty, RealClear, and the Washington Examiner.

This article was republished with permission from The Center Square.

Leave a (Respectful) Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *