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Pennsylvania Charter School Reform

Governor Tom Wolf recently proposed significant changes to Pennsylvania’s charter school law that he alleges could save school districts several million dollars while reducing the funding provided to charter schools. The reform overhauls Pennsylvania’s rules for charter school funding and accountability. Charter schools are independent public schools funded by payments from districts based on the parents’ choice to enroll their children. Public school districts in the state have been seeing a shortfall in their budgets and allege they are due to the increase in charter school funding payments while ignoring growing line items in their budget like PSERS payments. School districts pay charter schools based on enrollment at the per student at a rate which is set based on the spending of the district and is about 75% of the money the district spends on students.

Pennsylvania has a history of school choice. Charter schools have been promoted as alternatives to public school systems. Since their introduction in the late 1990s, student enrollment in Pennsylvania charter schools has steadily increased. Approximately 143,000 students are enrolled in charter schools throughout Pennsylvania. Charter school enrollment in Pennsylvania is amongst the highest in the nation. The reform put forth will have a significant and negative impact on the following factors:

Cyber Charter Schools. Cyber charter schools run at the same rate as brick and mortar charter schools.  The Governor alleges that they do not have the additional costs of maintaining a building and the is not based on the actual cost of educating the child.  The reform proposes to set a statewide rate for what a school district will pay cyber charter schools. However, cyber charter schools do operate out of buildings within the Commonwealth and establishing a flat rate to be paid to cyber charter schools would not take into consideration all the factors that go into the education of a child in a cyber environment like providing internet access, providing equipment including computers and printers, and providing in person services where the needs of the student dictate.  While the provision of education and the mechanism of education in a cyber environment is different, the Governor’s proposal ignores many of the costs and expenses that cyber charters experience that District’s do not.

Special Education. The reform proposes that the law be modified to set different rates for special education of students based on the severity of students’ needs, as opposed to a standard rate for the wide spectrum of special needs.  The Governor’s proposal ignores the fact that the rate for special education payments to charter schools is entirely based on the district’s spending on special education of students in the district.  The implementation of a tiered rate for special education students may benefit some districts, but overall will negatively impact the provision of services to students with special needs.

Standard Application Process. The reform proposes a standard framework for charter applications, which is something that charter schools have advocated for over the last few years.

Tighten Regulations. The reform proposes to make private companies that contract with charter schools subject to state Right-to-Know laws. However, the reform fails to distinguish between service providers and would subject entities like health care companies, insurers, accounting firms, and law offices to inquiries under the Right to Know Law unless the proposed reform is modified.

The Governor is sending a harsh message to parents of students enrolled in charter schools as funding for these schools will decline sharply due and more than 143,000 students will be affected.  Districts have blamed charter schools and ignored budget drivers like retirement costs skyrocketing over the last ten years, and refused to discuss equitable funding of the education of children in Pennsylvania.

For more information on how the proposed reform will affect your school, contact the legal team at MacMain, Connell & Leinhauser. Our counsel has considerable experience in representing school districts and charter schools. Contact us online or call us at 484-318-7106 for an initial consultation. We serve clients throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania from our office in West Chester, Pennsylvania.