State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

Study: cost of charter schools "obvious and escalating"

Written by Mary Wilson, Capitol Bureau Chief | Aug 26, 2014 8:30 PM
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Photo by Wikimedia Commons


A study released this summer finds charter school enrollment has grown steadily, but at the expense of Pennsylvania school district budgets.

Penn State researchers call the financial pressure on school districts "obvious and escalating," finding that from the 2006 to 2012 school years, the statewide cost more than doubled, arriving at $1.3 billion. The main statewide subsidy for education at the same point was $5.5 billion.

Districts pay tuition for each student that leaves their district for a charter or cyber charter school.
Professor Bill Hartman, part of a team of researchers who conducted the study, said tuition costs are expected to keep rising by 10 to 20 percent a year.

"The school districts have no control over the number of kids that go to charter schools," Hartman said. "Now, they are pushing back - they have created their own cyber schools, some of them very successfully. So they are trying to lure kids back in school districts, and that helps. But there's no restriction on parents' ability to send kids there."

There's no shortage of other stressors exacerbating school districts' budget problems. Statutorily mandated contributions to public pensions are rising. The state Legislature eliminated state aid for charter school tuition in 2011.

Charter schools also receive more money per student with special needs, though they are not required to spend the funds on special education costs. Researchers, using data reported on the Pennsylvania Department of Education website, found that charters spent less than half of what they received in special education tuition on special instruction and expenses during the 2012 and 2013 school years.

Charter advocates have said school districts that lose students to charters can save on the costs of educating those children. But Hartman said the data collected show any savings are marginal compared to how much districts must pay to charter schools.

"From an economic standpoint, most of the charter school costs are extra," Hartman said. "And they are driven, not by educational need, but by parental desire, a relatively small number of parents driving $1.3 billion out of public education."

The report was commissioned by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, a state legislative agency. It also found charter and cyber charter schools overall show lower academic performance than their traditional public school counterparts.

This is the second of two posts on the Center for Rural Pennsylvania study of charter schools. An earlier post reviewed the study's findings regarding charter schools' impact on school districts.

Published in State House Sound Bites

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Comments: 3

  • Jill Sunday Bartoli img 2014-08-27 07:13

    Why should our public school districts pay for these escalating costs, and why should our tax dollars (and escalating property taxes) be paying for this?

    Most importantly, who voted to have 100% of these costs dumped on local school districts, creating the largest tax increase in PA history?

    (Check the voting record of your State Legislator, and vote wisely in November)

  • Judith Pyrah Arnold img 2014-08-27 09:40

    I am one of those 'relatively small number of parents' aka taxpayers who have chosen to enroll my children in a public cyber charter school. My public school district is consistently been one of the lowest performing school districts in the state, while hemorrhaging money on extremely poor financial decisions. Recently the local school board voted to spend over one million dollars for a new football fieldhouse, which is a ridiculous expense in our small rural school district where the median housing price is less than fifty thousand dollars for a home. Our local football team is pretty lousy to begin with and even if the school were doing better academically I still do not understand how the school board can justify spending that kind of money. I think that if there is a million bucks in the budget that money needs to be spent on improving the academic performance of the kids in the district considering that a good number of the schools in the district are always year after year on the Pennsylvania Department of Education's list of low performing schools, but I don't get a say despite paying taxes.

    Then, there is that little detail about the school board refusing to follow the recommendations made following a state audit...Here is a quote on that "In January 2009, the Pennsylvania Auditor General conducted a performance audit on the district. Several serious findings were reported to the school board and administration. The auditors noted that Board violated the Sunshine Laws of Pennsylvania and improper use of capital reserve funds.[136]

    In 2013, Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene Depasquale audited the district and levied many serious accusations including accusing the Board of failure to properly manage the District, employing teachers who had Certification Deficiencies leading to the District being fined by the PDE, the School Board President violating the Pennsylvania Public School Code, ethics violations by officials and more". Would you want to send YOUR kids to this school?

    I spent a great deal of time trying to advocate for improvement and accountability in our local schools while my older four kids were enrolled there, with no results. My local public schools are also unaccredited and have no plan to pursue accreditation. My two younger kids are enrolled in an accredited school thanks to the availability of cyber charter schools. Cyber charter schools have a place and fill a need, please do not forget that. My kids now finally have a chance at a decent education. My kids are doing well and score 'advanced' on the PSSA tests in each subject every year, so I guess their cyber school is doing something right.

    • aflarend img 2014-08-27 18:26

      Just to put you mind at rest, 80% of the differences in student school achievement is due to at home factors rather than school factors. While without school there would be little learning ,what you do at home far outweighs the school. You can see this is any school district. Schools in wealthier places have better scores simply because of home factors. And obviously you are doing something right.

      If your district made poor plans, then you can vote out the board. You can organize people to do so, It happened in my district. With most charter schools, there is no elected school board. You cannot vote the people in charge out of office. This violates the basic tenet of local control. Yes you can switch your child's school, but that is very disruptive to their learning.

      Finally, realize that the charter schools that seem to get better results with kids who traditionally struggle often do so because they have cherry picked their students due to a lottery (just registering is a selective process) or in counseling out low performers, who them go back to their public school. Charter schools were originally planned as places where educators could try methods to help students who traditionally do not do well in school due to those home factors. Unfortunately now they are used to tear down public schools in an unfair comparison.

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