Thursday, April 1, 2021

PA: Charters Argue To Keep Money They're Not Owed

Governor Tom Wolf is once again trying to address Pennsylvania's lousy charter funding rules, but right-sizing charter funding would cut into charter profiteering, and so, the pushback is under way. 

A full package of the current talking points turned up in The Daily Signal, a right-wing website. This piece of commentary comes from Amber Northern, a senior vp for research at the reformy Fordham Institute and Lenny McCallister, who, after a career as a media commentary guy, now holds down dual jobs as CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools and as a senior fellow at the Commonwealth Foundation, a free market thinky tank with ties to ALEC. 

The big hook they want to hang their argument on is a recent piece of research conducted for Fordham by Mark "Jersey Jazzman" Weber. For whatever reason, they choose not to link to that research, but you can find it here. Read that, and then read further insights about the research itself here, from Weber himself. The key finding that they would like you to notice is that when students leave a public school for charters, the per-pupil spending in the public school mostly goes up. This, they note, is "contrary to charter critics' preferred narrative" (thereby suggesting that this is a concern that charter critics made up, rather than a sincere concern). 

However, what this charter critic has always said is that you can't run multiple school districts for the money that was barely enough to run one district, and the Weber research absolutely underlines that. I'm going to grossly oversimplify here, but the bottom line is that fixed costs are real. For instance, a special ed teacher is a fixed cost. If she used to serve ten students, but three leave, the district still has to keep her, but the expense of paying her is now stretched over seven students, resulting in higher per-pupil expenditures. 

Northern and McCallister would like to offer another explanation, which is that charter schools in PA receive less money per pupil than district schools. That's true--mostly (we'll get to the mostly in a second). But public schools have expenses that charter schools do not (for instance, PA cyber charters do not have transportation costs). And public schools have fixed costs. And public schools are owned by the taxpayers, and therefor the taxpayers are responsible for maintenance of those buildings. 

But the most important point to grasp about this argument is that it is an irrelevant smokescreen. 

Charter fans are concerned because "according to news sources, the new funding formula would take about $280 million currently due to charters and transfer it to school districts." 

Except that it's not being "transferred" to districts, because it represents money that charters were never "due" in the first place.

Pennsylvania charters take advantage of two huge loopholes in the law.

One is in regards to special ed students. PA students with special needs are sorted into tiers, with Tier 1 for students who need minimal intervention (eg an hour a week of speech therapy) and Tier 3 higher intervention (eg a full-time nurse or outplacement at a special school at district expense). Public schools are reimbursed by the state according to the cost levels of those tiers. Charters are reimbursed as if all their students with special needs are Tier 3 students. This means that students with low-cost special needs are like gold for the charters, who are reimbursed at levels far beyond the actual cost of the students. 

The other loophole is in the cyber charter biz, where the schools are reimbursed at the full per-pupil level of a bricks and mortar school. In effect, the cyber charter industry says, "We can do this job for far less, but we'd like you to just pay us a bunch of extra money, anyway."

Governor Wolf wants to close those two loopholes. That's where the $280 million comes from--cutting charters off from money they never had a legitimate claim to in the first place. 

Wolf is not calling for charters to shut down. He's not demanding that Pennsylvania students have fewer choices. The proposed changes would not have the slightest effect on families' freedom to choose educational options. Wolf is calling for a more responsible use of taxpayer money (plus actual regular audits for cybers, some of which have been audited in never). 

Charter proponents arguing against Wolf are not standing up for students or choice or freedom; they're standing up for the charter industry's right to rake in unearned windfall profits year after year at taxpayer expense. There's no reason for the gravy train to keep running. 

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