Gov. Tom Wolf stood firm Monday in his resolve to reform Pennsylvania’s decades-old charter school law.
But he will face a tough – nearly impossible, some say – battle in the General Assembly, where preserving school choice remains popular within the GOP-controlled Legislature.
“Let’s create a level playing field here,” Wolf said during a news conference Monday in Lancaster. “We are all in the business of taking taxpayer dollars to make students lives’ better.”
Wolf’s proposed changes, encapsulated in House Bill 272, would standardize cyber charter tuition to $9,500 per student and recalculate a charter school’s special education funding using an updated formula the Legislature approved in 2015. In total, districts could save $395 million, the administration said.
Currently, tuition for online charters fluctuates between $9,170 to $22,300 per student. Schools receive a special education funding amount equal to 16% of their enrollment. Critics said this outdated notion means some charters are “overpaid” for services they do not provide.
A Commonwealth Foundation analysis, however, found that public schools subtract certain tuition costs upfront – including transportation, facilities and debt services – meaning charters receive about 27% less per student than the district does, according to its data.
HB 272 also would add transparency measures that address complaints from school board leaders who argue charter schools escape accountability while taking taxpayer money because their board members are appointed, not elected. This leaves critical gaps in oversight that allow problematic schools to stay operational, they say.
“We have gone to great lengths to make sure the folks who run school districts are held accountable,” Wolf said. “It’s not always pleasant.”
Charter school advocates said the reforms will cut $99 million from special education students and shortchange cyber institutions up to $129 million.
Lenny McAllister, CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, likened the administration’s “cost savings” to “an attack on families who have exercised their right to choose a public charter school for their children.”
“It harms those already hurting and helps those that already have billions in resources,” he said. “Robbing Peter to please Paul is not a ‘cost saving,’ and this approach is not helping Pennsylvania families overcome the lingering effects the pandemic has had on education.”
Cyber charter school enrollment soared last year as students fled district schools amid the uncertainty of the pandemic. Districts said the unexpected spike came at a time when reduced tax revenue and other unanticipated costs – such as personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and enhanced technology needed for remote instruction – strained already tight budgets.
Art Levinowitz, president of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and an Upper Dublin School Board member, said his district weathered a 200% increase in cyber charter tuition alone.
“The state must enact comprehensive reforms to address areas of charter school operations, accountability and funding,” he said.
Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster, said enough votes exist in the House to pass reforms to the charter school law, untouched since it was enacted in 1997.
“I don’t think cyber education was even a twinkle in anybody’s eye at that point,” he said Monday. “What we see today is that people have figured out a way to make money, and they are less concerned about what the outcome is here.”
He blamed “certain leaders” for preventing charter reform bills from “ever seeing the light of day,” and claimed that Education Committee Chairman Curt Sonney, R-Erie, has been pressured to ignore the issue.
The Center Square reached out to Sonney for comment but did not receive an immediate response.