The concept of the charter school was first articulated back in the 1980s by Albert Shanker, the head of the New York City teachers’ union. Charter schools were conceived as an extension of the public school system — “incubators of experimentation” — to be run by public school teachers, but having the flexibility to try out new ideas, which, if successful, could be templates for school improvement. In State College, our alternative school, the Delta Program, is the closest to matching Shanker’s original vision.
But there are some other pretty good local examples. One of our charter schools was built on the small learning community model; another emphasizes project-based learning; yet another, instruction in multiple languages. These models have value to students and their parents, and they could provide us with useful insight. But any value we receive from these “experiments” comes in spite of state policy, not because of it.
First, Pennsylvania law allows for little meaningful oversight of charter schools, and there’s no mechanism for closing an ineffective one. There is neither accountability nor transparency; it is next to impossible to find out how charter schools spend their money. And while the local school district technically has the authority to deny a charter school application, the state Department of Education has made it quite clear that it is willing to overrule local decisions.
Second, nearly all charter school funding comes from the pocket of the “hosting” school district. This wasn’t always the case. The district’s “average per pupil expenditure” is the amount that charter schools receive for each student they enroll. But recognizing that school districts have certain “fixed” costs (construction debt, for example) that don’t disappear when students transfer to a charter school, the commonwealth initially promised to pick up 30 percent of the tab — a promise that was never kept. In recent years, state reimbursement has dropped to zero. Guess who picks up the tab now? (In State College, that amounts to about $5 million per year.)
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But it’s worse than that. Here are two examples that taxpayers should find outrageous:
On average, the cost for educating a special education student is about double that of a regular student, and charter schools receive that higher amount for each special education student they enroll. The actual cost of educating these students, however, varies considerably. So, some charter schools have learned to “cherry pick” the less expensive students and pocket the difference. Alternatively, many students have magically received a special ed designation only upon enrolling in a charter school.
As a result, last year $350 million flowed from public schools (and their taxpayers) into charter schools for special education purposes. But charter schools spent only $150 million. That’s a $200 million profit, at taxpayer expense.
Then there’s the pension “double-dip.” School districts are required to contribute a percentage of teacher salaries into the state pension fund, and that amount is part of the calculation of per pupil expenses that charter schools receive. But the state reimburses charter schools for that very expense so, in effect, they receive the money twice. The cost to taxpayers: close to $1 billion dollars over the next six years.
Addressing these two issues alone would have gone a long way toward plugging the hole in the current state budget.
One might assume that these are simple oversights, relatively easy to fix legislatively. In fact, “charter school reform” legislation was recently introduced that would have addressed these issues. You might ask, who would oppose it? Well, the for-profit charter schools, of course, which just happen to be major campaign contributors to many of our legislators in Harrisburg. (In fact, as a result of intense charter school lobbying, said provisions were removed from the aforementioned legislation.)
The others who opposed it see charter schools as a way to slowly erode support for the entire public school system. But years of research have demonstrated that charter schools, on average, perform no better than “regular” public schools — and because there’s so little oversight, sometimes quite worse. More disturbing: Pennsylvania ranks third from the bottom nationally in charter school performance. Is the current system a defensible use of taxpayer money? The answer seems obvious.