By Kim Jarrett | The Center Square
State school districts are struggling because of increases in special education and charter school costs, a group of school business professionals and superintendents said at a news conference Friday.
The Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA) released a report Friday on the financial health of the commonwealth’s 500 school districts. State officials begin the budgeting process for the 2020-21 fiscal year this week.
Much of that cost burden has been placed on local taxpayers as partial reimbursement for charter school tuitions ended in 2011 and increased state funding has not kept up with growth, the group said.
About $0.76 of new property tax dollars raised during a five-year period between the 2012-13 school year and the 2017-18 school year paid only for charter schools and special education costs, according to information from the two organizations.
The increase in special education funding is due to increased enrollment and the need for other services. The state’s special education spending increased by $1.2 billion during that five-year period, Diane Richards of the Governor Mifflin School District in Berks County said.
Enrollment in cyber and charter schools also has increased.
“Ten years ago, school districts paid $800 million in charter school tuition,” said Brian Pawling, director of business affairs at the Souderton Area School District. “We anticipate that school districts will pay more than $2 billion in charter schools costs this year, a 150 percent increase.”
While some of the increase is due to enrollment, much of it is due to the charter school tuition formula, Pawling said. The formula has not been changed in 22 years.
“It seems unconscionable to me that there had been no reform to the way that cyber/charter schools are funded, even though there is broad bipartisan agreement that the funding formula for students that receive regular education and especially for students that receive special education isn’t working,” David Christopher, superintendent of the Cumberland Valley School District, said.
Lawmakers across the political spectrum, even those seen as strong proponents of school choice in Pennsylvania, have indicated that the charter school funding formula needs to be revamped, but there has been no broad agreement on any one proposal.
Gov. Tom Wolf has been a critic of charter schools, claiming they lack transparency and are notorious for having “the most fiscally irresponsible laws in the nation.” The governor issued an executive order in August of 2019 requiring charter schools to operate on a “fee-for-service” model by requiring the schools to be responsible for their administrative costs to the state.
His order also called for leaders of charter schools to be held to the same standards as those on public school boards.
Supporters of charter schools say parents should have a choice, particularly when their local public school is failing to meet educational standards.
Money alone won’t solve the problem, Wayne McCullough, PASBO executive director, said.
“While increased state funding for education, changes to the way we fund charter schools and relief for local taxpayers are all necessary components of a solution, the process must start with an understanding and appreciation of the interconnectedness of all education funding issues.” McCullough said in a statement. “It’s all one conversation. And it can’t be accomplished in a vacuum.”