Members of the Pennsylvania State Senate Education Committee heard contrasting comments this week from public education superintendents and leaders of statewide cyber charter schools about funding issues both face in educating students.
Committee Chairman Wayne Langerholc, R-Richland Township, called for the committee to meet in Everett, a rural community roughly halfway between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, and hear from some leaders of smaller school districts about the cost issues they face when students leave the public school system and enroll in a statewide cyber charter.
The issue in particular is a 22-year-old state law that established how to fund charters. Many claim that law has set up a sometimes contentious battle between educators.
On Tuesday, Gov. Tom Wolf issued an executive order outlining changes in managing charters. Those changes include requiring the charters to pay the state for the costs the state Department of Education incurs to oversee them. In addition, Wolf wants the same ethics standards for public educators to be applied to charter leaders.
The governor also wants the Republican-led General Assembly to push through a reform package. In a statement after the committee hearing Wednesday, Langerholc said there’s consensus that such reforms are needed.
“It is clear from what we have heard today that we need to establish fair, commonsense approaches that will provide education funding in a way that supports all public students no matter where they attend school without imposing a huge financial burden on taxpayers,” the chairman said.
State Sen. Pat Browne, R-Allentown, said the key issue is to identify what the actual cost is to educate a student and use that as the starting point for funding.
Dr. Mark Kudlawiec, superintendent of the Chestnut Ridge School District, said the state should look at each district’s cost per child and then deduct money associated with transportation and maintenance that cyber charters would not need. Moshannon Valley Superintendent Dr. John Zesiger pointed to a Fordham Institute report that gave the charter’s annual cost between $5,000 and $7,700 per student. He noted, though, that some districts pay as much as $53,000 per student to cyber charters.
The superintendents also said some cyber charters put students in individualized education programs shortly after the students are enrolled. IEPs require special education services and allow charters to bill the districts at a substantially higher cost.
Dr. Daniel Webb, superintendent of the Everett Area Schools District, said he supports a competitive educational environment. However, he said the majority of kids leaving the district for cyber charters are doing it because of accountability issues, such as absenteeism. The charters are not as stringent on enforcement, and as a result, it can set students back even further if they wind up back in the district system.
The district leaders who testified Wednesday have their own online educational programs that compete against the charters. When state Sen. James Brewster, D-McKeesport, wanted to know why families chose to put their kids in schools that the superintendents criticized, one leader said it comes down to marketing.
“We don’t spend public dollars for advertising our programs,” said Arnold Nadonley, the superintendent for the Richland Area School District. “We don’t spend $21 million to advertise failing programs.”
Charter leaders testified later in the meeting, countering some of the claims the superintendents made.
Maurice Flurie, president and CEO of Commonwealth Charter Academy Cyber School, said his company and other statewide charters have different types of expenses from the school districts. CCA has an inventory of 15,000 computers and it must get one to a student within 48 hours. They also must deal with rapid turnover each year in the student body, and CCA spends more than $600,000 annually to send 600 staff members to 65 locations statewide to proctor standardized tests.
In addition, when the charter cannot get district help for a special needs student, they must call upon a third party, which substantially increases the cost of services. Special needs students account for 20 percent of the enrollment but 35 percent of the costs.
Just as the superintendents said they welcome fair competition, the representatives from the charter schools said they also understand the superintendents’ viewpoint.
“We need to get everybody together,” Michael Whisman CPA, a shareholder in Charter Choices, told lawmakers. “Not at a committee (or) commission, but I think we need to get in a room and work these things out because there are inequities on both sides.”