Friday, April 16, 2021

What Happens To Students That Charters Don't Want? (The Chester Upland Saga Continues)

In Chester Upland School District, the process of selling off the district schools to charter operators has continued (for a deeper dive into CUSD's troubled history, read here). Three charter operators have made their bids, and we'll take a closer look at that another day. It's all pretty sad and ugly.

But there's another troubling aspect to the dismantling of Chester Upland schools. The three charter companies have placed their bids to take over CUSD elementary schools. As has been hinted at all along, nobody wants to take over either of the two high schools.

The debates about charters and choice have often centered on the question of the students left behind in a school. when other students leave for a charter. How do the financial resources balance out? How does a district financially support ten schools when it was having trouble supporting two? 

But this is a whole other scenario. The charter operators are taking over elementary operations, but leaving the high school untouched, meaning that the high school can find itself drained of resources with absolutely no reduction in cost at all. Theoretically it would not be a problem because the charters would be inheriting the same student body and therefor the same funding. Except that in Pennsylvania's screwy funding system, a special; education student is funded at a far higher level for charters than in a public school. In public schools, special ed students are arranged in tiers are according to how expensive it is to meet their needs; in charter schools, they are all funded as if they belong to the top funding tier. Governor Wolf is pushing to fix this, but in the meantime, it means that every elementary student with mild special needs will suddenly draw more district funds the moment her school becomes a charter. Those extra funds will have to come from the high school budget.

The price tag in CUSD is high-- the going rate is $42K, as opposed to $11K for other non-special need students. One charter operator has agreed to settle for $30K, but that's still a chunk of the CUSD budget.

Additionally, depending on who district leaders decide to sell out to, we are potentially talking about three different charter companies operating in the district, so there will be the financial wrestling between those.

But that high school. So far I don't see anything in the plans that looks like a cap, a limit that keeps the charter elementary schools draining the high school dry. CUSD high school operations are difficult and troubled and consequently expensive--that's why none of the charter operators want to bid on them.

So what happens? What does CUSD do if its high school is chartered into oblivion? What happens to students that charter schools don't want? 

Absorption into neighboring districts is unlikely in this case; much of the district boundaries are where they are precisely because wealthier neighbors didn't want Those People's Children in their school. So who steps in?

School choice fans have never offered an answer to this problem. "Give parents a choice, and they can choose what's best for their child!" Which only works if what they want to choose is available, and will accept the child as a student. What happens to the students that charters don't want? 

CUSD has throughout its history provided demonstrations of just about every problem a school district can face. It looks like they're on track to provide some new examples.

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