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Lots of complaints, but few solutions

Many agree that the charter law should be changed. But political gridlock, powerful lobbies, and scarce funds make that difficult.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Nearly 20 years after Pennsylvania lawmakers established charter schools, serious concerns about the law’s fairness are still stirring debate. But few prospects for changing it are in sight, even as many school districts’ finances deteriorate steadily, partly due to charter growth.

Problematic consequences of the 1997 law that are widely acknowledged include:

  • The continued financial drain on school districts caused by the growth of charters, which are funded from school district budgets.
  • A charter funding formula that districts say pays charters too much because some parts of it do not reflect actual district or charter expenses.
  • A charter funding formula that charters say pays them too little because it lops off 30 percent of a district’s costs – such as transportation and pre-K that charters don’t incur – before calculating the per-pupil payment.
  • A formula that doesn’t explicitly provide funds or reimbursements for building purchases and renovations, so charters have to pay for those projects out of operating expenses.
  • An authorizing system considered flawed by charter advocates and school boards, but for different reasons. The advocates find it flawed because only local school boards, which compete with charters for students, can vote to create these schools. The school boards consider it flawed because they are prevented from considering the financial impact of new charters on their districts.
  • Vague criteria for charter renewal and lengthy appeal processes, leading to protracted disputes about closing charters for poor academic performance or mismanagement.
  • A financial formula that gives cyber charters, which are authorized by the state, the same amount per student as brick-and-mortar schools, which results in widely varying per-pupil payments by districts to cyber charters for providing the same educational services to all students.

Charter growth continues

The failure to enact comprehensive charter law reform does not mean the situation is static. The number of charter schools continues to grow, as does charter enrollment – in 2014-15, they accounted for 8 percent of Pennsylvania students. In Philadelphia, charter students make up more than a third of the student population. Statewide, charters get more than $1.4 billion in funding annually from school districts.

Fiscal conservatives and charter supporters have won several funding-related victories over the years, resulting in the double-whammy for districts of less state education funding and more charter students. In 2011, for example, a budget line that provided state reimbursement to school districts for more than 20 percent of their charter costs was eliminated, a major blow to districts.

Efforts by the General Assembly and state courts to tinker with the law have often done more harm than good, resulting in confusion and gridlock.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court earlier this year nullified the Philadelphia School Reform Commission’s special powers, which had been used to restrict charter growth. So city charter student numbers are likely to increase quickly and dramatically, bringing more money problems to the already struggling District.

And the legislature passed special education reform legislation in 2013 that gives districts more money for severely disabled students and less for those with mild disabilities. The reform also based funding on the actual number of disabled students, not on an expected average.

But the law excluded charters. That leaves in place a dual system that often sends charters two or even three times the regular education student payment for their special education students, no matter how mild or severe their disability.

“One thing everyone agrees on is that the current formula is broken,” said Jonathan Cetel, executive director of PennCAN, a group that pushes for high-quality schools and focuses much of its attention on increasing choice for low-income parents. “It all comes back to this: All school systems in Pennsylvania, both school districts and charters, are the victims of an inequitable funding system.”


Still, in the four years he has been working on funding and charter issues, he said, “the level of gridlock in the legislature now [on those issues] is the worst I’ve seen.”

Cyber charters, which are authorized by the state, continue to grow despite poor academic performance and many questions about whether they are given too much money.

Cetel agrees that cyber charters should not be funded by the same formula as brick-and-mortar charters. A payment system reflecting their real costs should be devised, he said. And “the research has been pretty unambiguous that the academic performance of cyber schools has been poor. … I would like to see the focus on their academics. … I think we will see changes soon – every lawmaker has a cyber charter student in their district.”

PennCAN supports closing or reorganizing underperforming schools, whether charter or public, Cetel said, adding: “I judge the success of a charter movement by quality, not quantity.” But accountability legislation faces tough dilemmas, he said. “If a charter school is not doing well but still outperforming the neighborhood school that [kids] would otherwise be going to, is it fair to close that school? … I don’t know the answer.”

Cetel said that a statewide independent board should be created, with the power to authorize charters and the resources to oversee them properly.

School districts should get reimbursed by the state for some charter expenses, Cetel said, and the 2013 special education law – the one that created a tiered payment system depending on the level of a student’s disability – should be phased in over time for charters.

But all charter funding issues, he said, should be addressed together and include reimbursement for construction and building costs and a change in how charters are authorized.

“I believe you can’t do anything piecemeal,” he said.

Donna Cooper, the executive director of Public Citizens for Children & Youth (PCCY), a Philadelphia-based child advocacy group, opposes amendments creating more ways to authorize charters.

“Unfettered charter growth,” is “destroying the foundation of public education,” said Cooper, by draining money and students from many already seriously underfunded districts.

She agrees with Cetel on one point: “I see gridlock.”

Along with a GOP-dominated legislature with conservative leadership, Cooper said, the other obstacle to change is that “there’s a lot of money coming in to pay for lobbyists to either protect the status quo for charters or expand their enrollment capacity.” And many legislators, she said, have “very blurry vision” when it comes to “what is appropriate and inappropriate motivation” to vote the way they do.

Lobbies resist change

For example, there is some support for extending special education funding reform to charters and for cutting cyber charter funding, Cooper said, but some charter interests are lobbying heavily against that.

“The cyber charter formula is not a rational one,” she said. But it survives because there is “political corruption [carried out by] people who can curry favor in the legislature because they have the resources to do it.”

Her hope, she said, is that information showing “the misuse of funds, and that summarizes failed academic results” will convince legislators that charters are not a “silver bullet” that cures public education ills.

But some legislators remain skeptical about tamping down charter growth, Cooper said, as long as so many school districts, even some with “reasonable resources,” are not getting decent academic results.

The big problem is that most districts with heavy charter concentrations start off with insufficient resources, and the way charters are funded makes that financial strain worse.

Cooper said that although there is some appetite for restoring the budget line item that helped school districts offset the cost of charters to their districts, there is a political problem. Most districts with heavy charter enrollments are represented by Democrats, she said, and the majority Republicans are “not as interested in making sure they’re whole.”

About 100 of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts are now in serious financial disarray; legislators in the remaining 400 don’t face that situation at home and are not very motivated to increase overall funding or address charter law flaws, Cooper said.

But she warned that continued inadequate funding and charter expansion are “spreading the cancer of financial instability farther and farther across the state. I think they will [regret] that they did not put the funding in place and nip this in the bud.”

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