New data shows significant stranded costs cannot be eliminated
I want to thank Research for Action for their report documenting and explaining in detail what has been readily apparent for years: Pennsylvania’s absurd charter law and inequitable school funding system means unfettered charter school growth is unsustainable. It’s a system that cannibalizes public school districts at the expense of all students.
In Philadelphia, unfettered charter school expansion – and in particular the SRC voting to convert public schools to charter – has resulted in more than one-third of students in the charter system. Charter schools are one of the leading cost drivers – and certainly the leading voluntary cost driver – of expenses in the District.
This report shows that each additional student in a charter school drives the District further into debt to the tune of $8,000 per student a year at the start, and more than $4,000 per student a year even by year five. The report shows that those stranded costs never go away and are disastrous for school district finances.
This is not just a Philadelphia problem. This situation wreaks havoc on any school district, and is especially difficult for smaller public school systems who have a harder time reducing their costs. The problem cannot be resolved by “belt-tightening” by school districts. The report found that the costs of charter expansion persist even when it is assumed that districts will pursue extremely aggressive cost-cutting measures such as extensive layoffs and school closings.
At a minimum, our state legislators must formally restore the charter school reimbursement into the state budget. Pennsylvania used to reimburse school districts for just a little more than a quarter of the costs of per pupil charter expenses. This would go a long way toward alleviating the stranded costs of charters that do great harm to all students’ learning.
As important, Harrisburg must get to work on two things. First, they must fully fund the school equity formula they enacted in 2016. This benefits both charters and public schools. This formula currently applies to less than 3% of education spending. It’s time – long past time – for our schools to receive the funding they both need and deserve.
And second, our state legislature must correct the abuses within the current charter school law and begin to institute common sense regulations that impact school district finances like enrollment caps, full transparency and disclosure, holding charters accountable to spend special education funding on special education students, and overhauling or eliminating the state Charter Appeal Board, which has approved the renewals of failing charters and contributed to financial distress of public schools systems. If the state chooses to keep the CAB, major reforms must be instated, including public review of decisions, balanced representation, and allowing the CAB to consider the financial implications of charters as one aspect of a District’s right to determine approvals and renewals.
I commend RFA for their work, and for contributing to a deeper understanding of the plight of school districts and the financial impact of charters – even good ones – on our public school systems.
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Councilwoman Helen Gym was sworn in as an At-Large Member of Council in 2016. Her primary concerns include addressing widespread poverty in Philadelphia, particularly through an emphasis on building a quality public education system. For more information, visit phlcouncil.com/HelenGym.