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Our opinion: Charter school laws need reform

It’s highly unlikely that anyone turns cartwheels when they pay their property taxes, but the idea that the money is going to the school up the street to educate neighborhood children can provide some solace.

The reality, however, is that a chunk of those resources are being diverted from local educational needs and being sent to charter and cyberschools that are located many miles away, don’t have the same level of transparency as public schools and frequently have worse educational outcomes than their public counterparts.

How is this fair?

It’s not, and last week officials from five Western Pennsylvania public school districts sounded the alarm, outlining the relentless drain charter and cyberschools have on their budgets, and urged state lawmakers to reform laws around charter and cyberschools. That it did not happen with the 2022-23 budget that was approved a few weeks ago stands as yet another missed opportunity.

A brief explanation is probably in order: In Pennsylvania, if a student decides to enroll in a charter or cyberschool, the per-pupil allotment from their home district follows them. It goes along even if the student is attending a cyberschool that, obviously, does not have the same fixed costs as a brick-and-mortar school, such as building maintenance, food, cafeteria personnel, buses or drivers.

Take the case of the Ligonier Valley School District in Westmoreland County. Over the last decade, the district has forked over almost $18 million to cyber and charter schools for tuition costs. Since then, the district has increased its millage rate by almost 17 mills, bringing in an additional $24 million. This means that 72% of the district’s tax increases have gone toward cyberschool tuition. Only salaries and benefits, transportation and debt service take up larger slices of that district’s budget.

And during an online press conference hosted by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, Chris Juzwick, the assistant director of finance for the South Fayette School District, explained that when he worked for the Carlynton School District outside Pittsburgh, the district had to pare away art, music and physical education teachers even as they had to keep on handing over precious resources to cyber and charter schools.

The overwhelming majority of school boards in Pennsylvania have approved resolutions imploring that rules surrounding charter and cyberschools be changed, and it’s time for those calls to be heeded.

If taxpayer money is pouring into their coffers, cyber and charter schools should be just as transparent and accountable as public schools. Their performance academically needs to improve. And cyberschools in particular should stop receiving more in tuition money than it actually costs to educate each individual student.

During the press conference, Dr. Janet Sardon, who leads the Yough School District in Westmoreland County, explained that cyber and charter school tuition payments make “our mission and what we’re doing in the best interest of kids much more difficult to achieve.”

Is anyone in Harrisburg listening to her?

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