New Castle News

March 8, 2013

Bill could save charter funds for public schools

John Finnerty
CNHI

CNHI — Public school districts may finally get help in their struggle to recapture some of the money that has followed students who choose charter schools.

State Rep. James Roebuck, a Democrat from Philadelphia unveiled a comprehensive cyber school funding reform bill Thursday that was largely modeled on recommendations made by former auditor general Jack Wagner in a special report released last summer.

The projected savings would be four times the amount Gov. Tom Corbett has proposed to increase in the state’s basic education funding this year.

Pennsylvania, on average, paid more per student enrolled in charter school than any of the other states in the top five in terms of number of students enrolled in charter schools, the auditor general found.

Pennsylvania paid more than $12,000 per student in charter school, according to Wagner’s analysis.

Pennsylvania pays charter schools the same rate that traditional public schools receive per student, even though charter schools, particularly computer-based schools, do not cost as much to operate.

Wagner recommended setting the rate for bricks-and-mortar charter schools at $10,000 per student and the rate for cyber students at $6,500 each.

Wagner said the state could redirect as much as $365 million back to the local school districts by doing a better job sorting out how much of the state’s educational dollars should follow students who stay at home to study online or study in a bricks-and-mortar charter school.

In Lawrence County, the New Castle school district has budgeted $825,000 for charter school fees. The latest data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education shows that the cost paid per student in New Castle is $7,926.07 and the cost for a special education student is $17,034.46.

A key component of Roebuck’s legislation is a requirement that at the end of the year, the charter school would reconcile how much it spent to educate students against how much the school received in tuition. Any extra money would be returned to the local district.

Roebuck announced his bill days before the House education committee will consider two bills aimed at cyber school funding reform.

Steve Robinson, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said the organization is optimistic that cyber school funding reform of some kind will be accomplished because of the multiple legislative remedies in play.

Robinson said the association has not specifically targeted any of the legislative remedies as being preferable, though it is opposed to a key component in HB 759.

The measure would fund cyber schools directly from the department of education, rather than routing the money through the local school district. The association objects to that because sending the money directly to the cyber school would make it difficult for local schools to oversee the spending and dispute the bills being submitted by the charter schools.

Officials in traditional public school believe that there are cases when students, who have never required special services, are being labeled as special needs students by cyber schools because of the additional revenue that follows a student identified as requiring special education accommodation.

Another measure would target the “double-dipping” of pension funds. Co-sponsors of that legislation include Rep. Jaret Gibbons, a Democrat from Lawrence County and Rep. Michele Brooks, a Republican from Crawford County.

Cyber schools can help some families who find that traditional public schools are not working for them, Gibbons said.

Lawmakers are just trying to make sure that cyber schools get the money they need to educate their students, he continued, while ensuring that funds associated with costs that cyber schools do not have, remain with the traditional public schools.

(Email: jfinnerty@cnhi.com)