School choice and equitable state funding continue to be concerns for parents sending their children to Pennsylvania cyber charter and charter schools.
Currently, Pennsylvania’s basic and special education dollars “follow the child,” which means the allocation of state education dollars is done on a “per student” basis.
School districts receive roughly $16,000 for every basic education student and about $25,000 for every special education student they have attending their traditional brick and mortar schools.
The funding is much different for cyber charter and charter school students, however. Districts withhold (from required payments to cybers and charters) approximately 25% of state funding for administrative costs; plus do not reimburse for a long list of essential expenses. As a result, the cyber charter and charter schools receive much less per student—roughly $12,000 for basic education students and $16,000 for special education students. With many cyber charter and charter schools composed of approximately 19% of special education students, and 54% of children at the poverty level, these differences are troubling. Many of these cyber charter and charter school students are children in underserved populations with challenging demographics that have unique physical/mental/emotional needs that cannot be well served in traditional public school settings.
On the surface it may appear that there are some legitimate reasons for reducing cyber charter and charter school allocations – For instance, the lack of a need for transportation dollars, with a cyber charter school. In this example; however, what may not be realized or considered initially are the IT costs for computer equipment, set up and continual maintenance that cyber charters face. The same could be said for a smaller charter school that doesn’t have to support building size. Still, the unique challenges even a brick and mortar charter may have caring for specific populations of students, again offsets any savings. Consider the example of an art based charter school. An art-based charter school would have supply needs that are varied and different from a traditional school but still impactful and costly per student.
Understanding this better helps one to see how the funding has historically been skewed against cyber charters and charters, and unfortunately, here in PA, it could get worse.
New proposals from the Governor’s administration and the Legislature indicate this funding gap may only widen as they finalize budget negotiations.
General Assembly’s Proposal: Legislation currently under consideration by the General Assembly would see basic education dollars for cyber charter and charter schools reduced to between $9,000 and $10,000 per student. This amounts to reductions of about $27 million to cyber charter and charter students. That’s an 18 to 20% reduction in funding for one of the commonwealth’s fastest growing education sectors.
Governor Wolf’s Proposal: In his February budget address, the Governor suggested that changing the way cyber charters and charters are funded could be one of the ways to “save” between $50 and $180 million in state funds. This is a substantial cut of approximately 36-40% of education dollars for cyber charter and charter students. Basic education funding for children in cyber charter and charter schools would be reduced to between approximately $6,000 and $7,000 per student.
If these dramatic cuts are approved, certain cyber charter and charter schools will have no alternative but to close. This will limit choice and options for many students and parents. The good news is that help may be on the way.
There is the School Code bill that was proposed with the ’15-’16 budget and now being discussed again as part of the ’16-’17 budget. In this proposed legislation there is a mechanism to define an appropriate funding formula that focuses solely on the cyber charter and charter schools.
The bill would require the formation of a commission that would study the issue and make recommendations. Like the commissions that worked on basic education and special education, this new commission will include legislative and administrative appointees. Unlike the other commissions; however, this commission would also have input from representatives of cyber charter and charter schools.
Pugliese Associates represents K12, an organization which provides management and develops curricula for cyber charter schools across the country, as well as PA Leadership, a cyber charter school here in PA. We know the good that cyber charter and charter schools do and the significant educational options and opportunities that they provide to students and parents in PA. We are hopeful that the Legislature and the Governor may hold off on implementing any proposed cuts for Fiscal Year 2016-17 until there is a commission in place to review and provide the insight to create a fair and equitable funding formula specifically for cyber charter and charter schools.
We also believe that the proposed legislation would provide more transparency and accountability for cyber charters and charters. This is important, too.
Parents want choices for their children. Students of varying needs deserve options for quality education. That is the very essence of why cyber charter and charter schools exist. If Pennsylvania’s “follow the child” philosophy is to endure, inclusion of cyber charter and charter school students should to be funded fairly and equitably.