As lawmakers and Gov. Tom Corbett accelerate the move to alternative forms of public education, they continue to ignore funding disparities that adversely affect school districts and taxpayers.
Charter schools, including those conducted over the Internet, attract more students every year. Because the Legislature has not corrected the disparities first detailed by Auditor General Jack Wagner, costs to taxpayers also will grow.
The Legislature first established charter schools in 1997. They are independent public schools, often with private sponsoring organizations, authorized by local school boards or the state Department of Education.
When a child enrolls in a charter school, the district where he lives pays the tuition, which is the district's cost per student.
Therein lies part of the problem. Rather than setting charter school tuition at the charter's actual cost per student, tuitions vary widely even for the same school.
In a special 2010 report, for example, Mr. Wagner cited a charter school in Allegheny County that enrolled students from 10 school districts, which paid 10 different tuition rates. The lowest rate was $7,201; the highest was $11,333.
Internet charter schools enroll students statewide. Mr. Wagner cited one with students from 425 of the state's 500 school districts. The lowest tuition paid was $6,753; the highest was $15,124.
That means that taxpayers in some school districts subsidize some students from other districts to attend charter schools.
Meanwhile, the state government has no idea of the per-student cost for any charter school. And even though costs for Internet schools are lower than for physical schools, that is not reflected in the tuition charges.
Further still, the state requires school districts to reconcile their actual costs with the amounts of state aid they have received, and strictly limits their ability to accumulate reserves. It places no such requirements on charter schools, enabling some of them to accumulate reserves far beyond those allowed for school districts.
When a district loses a student to a charter school, the state partially reimburses the district for a portion of the per-pupil cost. The state paid more than $300 million in such reimbursements last year without even knowing the actual cost per student at each charter school.
Pennsylvanians spend about $1 billion a year to send about 75,000 students to more than 135 charter schools. As the trend grows, lawmakers should mandate that charters charge their actual costs as tuition. In cases where that is more than the host district's cost per student, lawmakers should ensure that the state makes up the difference.
Since charters technically are public schools and are publicly funded, the state should uniformly apply its financial standards to ensure accountability and preclude unwarranted windfalls.
-The (Scranton) Times-Tribune