There are two bills being considered in the Pennsylvania General Assembly that contain some much-needed reforms to the state's charter school law.
A lot has been learned about the unique financial fingerprint of charters over that past 17 years since charters were first granted. First, with virtually no physical plant to maintain, the cost of operating a cyber-charter is significantly less than a brick-and-mortar charter, while the potential for a larger student base unrestricted by classroom space increases potential income.
Yet, current law funds cyber-charter schools the same way as brick-and-mortar schools. Both bills would change that and base funding on actual expenses. There are other improvements in oversight of schools as well.
But, there remain some flaws in the legislation.
First is pension reiumbursement.
Under current law, a charter school is reimbursed for its pension costs by both the local district and the state. As a result of this pension "double dip," charter school pension expenses are overfunded by roughly 20-50 percent.
In an attempt to rectify this double-dip, both bills under consideration offer alternatives that go too far and underfund actual charter school pension expenses by as much as 50 percent. This could be an easy fix.
A component of the bills that has proven controversial is the switch to reliance on the higher education system to authorize new brick-and-mortar charters rather than the current system of giving that responsibility to local school districts, which ultimately funnel funding to charters based on student population lost to the district. Although there is an appeal process available for local charter refusals, the current system might be seen as placing the decision in the hands of an organization with little to gain and much to lose by a new charter in its domain.
And, as has been seen here in Warren County, charter efforts are sometimes fraught with politics, an overtone that would be greatly reduced by the reliance of a review by a university.
Charter schools have become an important and worthwhile component of the state's education system; tweaking the law that establishes them and oversees their operation will only enhance their role.