Pennsylvania lawmakers are trying once again to reform charter school funding.
The House failed to vote on a charter school-focused reform bill last fall, and now Rep. Mike Turzai, the House Majority Leader from Allegheny County, has introduced a new package he said is more of a jumping-off point to finding common ground for charter reform.
The bill, introduced last Friday just before National School Choice Week, would directly impact all York County school districts, as well as brick-and-mortar charters and cyber charters. The cyber and charter schools receive payments of tax money through a formula pegged to what it costs to educate each student in his or her home school district.
The bill includes, among other things, eliminating a pension double-dip by charters. Districts have to factor in 100 percent of pension contribution costs when calculating tuition contributions to charters, even though the state reimburses charters for half of their pension costs.
The cyber funding formula would also be modified to allow districts to deduct costs they incur that cyber charters don't when the districts are calculating their per pupil cost. Under the proposal, school districts could partially deduct the costs of creating their own in-house cyber programs and the costs of sports and libraries.
The special-education funding formula would also be examined as part of the bill.
District support: Hanover Public School Superintendent Al Moyer said cyber school tuition costs his district $1 million a year. Moyer said a cyber program might be a great option for some motivated students, but he said he also knows "some parents who have apathy" and want to avoid truancy fines, so they send their child to a cyber school.
"Do you think they are going to sign on" and take courses, Moyer said of those students.
A funding formula change is needed, he said.
Jeff Mummert, business manager at South Western School District, agrees, saying tuition for cybers and brick-and-mortar charters needs to better reflect the "true cost to operate."
"How come they are held to a different standard?" Mummert said.
School district officials and lawmakers said it doesn't seem right that one district might pay $18,000 in tuition for a cyber student living in the district, and another district might pay $8,000 for another student to attend that same cyber school.
Cyber response: Cyber school chief executive officers at Achievement House and 21st Century agreed that there should be a better way to do it; both schools have dozens of York County students.
Achievement House CEO Tim Daniels said he's all for "reasonable" discussion of reform, but Turzai's proposal isn't it. Cyber schools are getting targeted unfairly, he said.
Many districts say they can run their own cyber programs for less -- and that cyber charters are charging too much -- but those districts aren't factoring in overhead when they are touting their in-house costs, Daniels said, making it misleading. And some of the districts pointing to cybers not meeting state achievement standards are the same ones that didn't meet those requirements either.
"It's a double standard," Daniels said.
21st Century CEO John Marsh called the proposal "bizarre," saying it makes no sense a district's own cyber program costs are being deducted from what an outside cyber program is paid.
And 21st Century teachers are paid at a lower level than those in most districts, he said, and his school developed its own curriculum.
"So when they say they can offer (their own cyber) program for $4,000, how in the world are you doing it? Well, they aren't including the other costs," Marsh said. "Does the funding model need to be tweaked? Absolutely. But let's work together."
Brick-and-mortar charters wouldn't be as affected by the bill, but New Hope Academy chief academic officer Karen Schoonover said a bill provision to lengthen the time before a charter needs to be renewed to 10 years instead of five helps.
Banks are hesitant to lend to a school that only has a five-year contract to operate, she said.
-- Reach Andrew Shaw at firstname.lastname@example.org