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House Dems introduce charter school funding tweak

State Rep. Ryan Bizzarro, R-Erie, talks with state Representatives Pam Snyder, D-Greene/Fayette/Washington at left, and Rob Matzie, D-Beaver/Allegheny at right, on the House Floor while the House is at ease recently.

Several House Democrats want to help local school district budgets by reigning in Pennsylvania’s cyber charter schools.

Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Greene/Fayette/Washington, and Rep. Ryan Bizarro, D-Erie, have introduced House Bill 1074 with support from eight fellow Democrats and Republican Tracy Pennycuick, R-Montgomery. The legislation would allow parents to enroll their children in cyber charters, but change state law to allow free tuition only if the child’s school district does not offer an online education program. If a school district offers its own online education program, parents can enroll their child in that program for free. Parents would have to pay the tuition price for a cyber charter school not run by the local school district.

“As property owners and taxpayers across this state know, spending on education is expensive for our communities,” Snyder and Bizarro said in their legislative memorandum. “So it is crucial for us to ensure that this money is used wisely and effectively. This legislation is important to prevent school districts from having to pay a second time for programs they already offer, which will allow them to conserve taxpayer dollars.”

The issue of cyber charter school funding reform was recently discussed by the Warren County School District, which offers its own online program and is paying for about 126 students who live in the Warren County School District to attend cyber charter schools not provided by the district.

Taxpayers statewide spent $2.1 billion on charter schools, including more than $600 million on cyber schools. This year, the burden on taxpayers will increase by more than $400 million. Between 2013 and 2019, 44 cents of every $1 of new property taxes went to charter schools, according to the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials.

“We pay just over $11,000 for regular ed students and $26,000 for special ed students,” said Jim Grosch, Warren County School District business services director. “‘Free tuition’ actually comes from the taxpayers.”

Gov. Tom Wolf has introduced his own legislative proposal to reform charter schools as Senate Bill 27 and House Bill 272. The governor wants to establish performance standards that hold charter schools accountable for the educational outcomes of students and place a moratorium on new cyber charter schools, cap student enrollment in low-performing cyber charter schools until outcomes improve, require charter management companies be subject to the Right to Know Act, State Ethics Act and post employee salaries on the Pennsyvlania Department of Education’s website, similar to requirements already in place for public school districts; and create fair, predictable, and equitable funding for school districts, including in the areas of special education funding and cyber charter tuition payments.

Wolf also proposes saving $130 million a year by creating a single per-student tuition rate that school districts would pay cyber charters so that the cost would be the same statewide. Cyber charter tuition can range from $9,170 to $22,300 per student.

“Every child in Pennsylvania deserves a high-quality education that prepares them to succeed in life, but our current law lets some charter schools perform poorly at the expense of students enrolled in traditional district schools,” Wolf said in February. “The pandemic has made the problem worse as charter school enrollment has increased. We must hold charters accountable to students, parents, and taxpayers. Anything less should be unacceptable.”

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