Saturday, February 6, 2021

PA: Budget Kicks Off Another Round Of Charter Battles

Governor Tom Wolf has released his budget proposal, and charter supporters are not happy.

This is not the first time Wolf has made the charter school industry sad. Back in the summer of 2019 he fired some shots across their bows with an aggressive agenda for fixing Pennsylvania's messed up charter funding system. In return, they've launched a variety of PR pushes; indications are they have something a little more potent in mind this time.

In his 2020 budget speech, tried to soothe the industry and thread the needle, saying that Pennsylvania students should get a great education "whether in a traditional public school or a charter school" an noting that "Pennsylvania has a history of school choice, which I support." But he also said that some charter schools are “little more than fronts for private management companies, and the only innovations they’re coming up with involve finding new ways to take money out of the pockets of property taxpayers.”

The 2021 budget has several features to tighten up Pennsylvania's exceptionally loose charter industry. 

Pennsylvania's 14 cyber charters will be audited. "Wait," you say. "the cyber charters aren't audited?" The answer is "barely;" six of the charters have never been audited at all, and the largest cyber charter in the state, Commonwealth Charter Academy, was last audited in 2012. 

The proposal also targets cyber charter funding, one of the deeply nonsensical features of the Pennsylvania charter landscape. Cybers get 100% of the same payment as a brick and mortar charter school--even though they have no bricks, no mortar, and none of the other expenses of an actual school building. Consequently, cyber schools in PA are making money hand over fist, and taxpayer dollars go to things like advertising ($1,000 per student recruited at one charter) and, no kidding, a cool robot dog. The governor proposes to set a statewide cyber tuition rate that is still mighty generous. The state's in-house online education program costs about $5,400 per student per year, and the governor proposes a set $9,500 tuition rate.

The proposal also looks to fix the charter reimbursement rate for special ed. Currently, a charter gets the same high payment rate for all special ed students, whether they need a full-time aid and extensive specialized supports, or they just need a few adaptations in a regular classroom. That has made students with special needs into cash cows in PA. This is extra nuts because PAS actually has a tiered system for rating special needs--it just isn't used when paying charters. The governor's proposal is that charters should be paid an amount in line with the actual costs of educating the students.

The governor also proposes more oversight and accountability for the Education Improvement Tax Credit and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit, Pennsylvania's two tax credit scholarship (aka voucher) programs.

Wolf also plans to address Pennsylvania's funding inequities, among the very worst in the nation, with a nearly $2 billion increase in school spending. So charters get less, and public schools get more (including getting to keep more of the public tax dollars they used to have to hand over to charters).

None of this is a hit with the school choice crowd. It's a little nuts, really, because the governor's proposal boils down to "Pay the charters what it actually costs to educate the students instead of paying them what it costs to educate the students PLUS a big fat taxpayer-funded bonus." It's an exceptionally not-very-radical proposal.

But the pushback is already coming, because GOP leaders in the House and Senate are already prepped and ready to join the national push for more choiciness. From the Center Square reporting:

Republican leaders in the House and Senate likewise panned the budget proposal as dead on arrival. Instead, President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Bellefonte, Education Committee Majority Chairman Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, and Sen. John DiSanto, R-New Bloomfield, announced plans for their own school funding bill – the Excellence in Education for All Act.

The forthcoming bill’s priorities include expanding tax credit scholarship programs – of which the governor has sought to limit during his six years in office – and expanding other avenues of school choice, from charters to “education learning pods.”

Watch for well-organized special needs groups to push back on the charter cuts, because those special needs cash cow cuts will really hurt the charter bottom line. The thing to remember is that the "cuts" are just bringing payments in line with costs. Consider Chester Upland as an example.In Chester Upland, the charter schools were found to be receiving $40,000 per student with special needs; yet the court found that exactly none of their students with special needs fell outside of the $0 to $25,000 range for costs. So every special need student meant anywhere from $15,000 to $40,000 in extra income to the school. They might well cry (as some Philly advocates already are doing) that they are having their special ed budget cut in half--but that's because they're currently getting twice as much money as they actually need to do the job. 

This is going to be a budgetary adventure, with two different initiatives--one pro-public school and one anti--- going on against the backdrop of a pandemic in a state where, frankly, the vaccine rollout isn't going so well. Stay tuned.

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