Their View | Twisting data to support anti-charter school campaign

In response to Tuesday’s column by State College Area school board member David Hutchinson regarding charter schools, Hutchinson has many things in common with the common perceptions that many in Pennsylvania hold. Relative to the handful of charter schools that he is familiar with, he appreciates the mission-driven work that serves students and families in his area.

Relative to the vast and frightening unknown that is the remainder of the commonwealth’s 180 charter schools, he believes the spin and rhetoric of those with an anti-charter school agenda. While we expect this type of agenda from organizations that exist to support the interests of adults — teachers unions — we have recently been misled by a reputable organization, the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials.

Hutchinson’s breakdown of special education funding for charter school’s was copied directly from PASBO’s May 13 press release.

PASBO and Hutchinson note that districts sent charters $350 million in special education funding while charters spent “approximately $156 million” (according to PASBO) and “only $150 million,” according to Hutchinson. These figures were gathered from reliable data, the school district and charter school annual financial reports. These reports are filed with the state each year.

Unfortunately, the public was misled by a misrepresentation of the data. When school districts report the amount of money they send to charters for special education students, their AFR figures reflect the regular education base tuition and the special education differential in the same number. For example, if a district’s regular tuition rate is $10,000 and the special education rate is $20,000, the amount paid for a special education student includes $10,000 in base regular education tuition and a $10,000 differential due to the special education status.

So, the $350 million that districts reported as charter school special education expense is approximately 50 percent regular education funding and 50 percent special education funding. This would bring the districts’ “expense” for charter school special education students to approximately $175 million.

Charters reported expenditures of $156 million, leaving a gap that is not staggering and is most likely consumed by administrative costs that were reported in other areas of the charter expenditures. PASBO certainly knows enough about school finance to understand this dynamic. This leaves only one explanation for the misrepresentation of the figures: to push an anti-charter agenda.

While it is understandable that well-meaning school board members and the general public would be misled, it is unacceptable that an organization that specializes in school finance would present such an argument.

Charter schools are required to file an annual financial report, just like regular school districts. If a school board member or resident in Pennsylvania would like to know how a charter spends its money, every penny is detailed in the report. AFRs are available upon request from the school or the state Department of Education.

To claim that it is “next to impossible to find out how charter schools spend their money” is both misleading and ignorant.

My advice for those who are consumed with fighting charter schools is simple. It is also more constructive than misrepresenting fiscal data. Make traditional public schools so good that no parent or student would choose an alternative. Until that occurs, charters will remain a critical element in the public education landscape.