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Q & A: How charters get their operating money

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

How are charter schools funded?

Each Pennsylvania charter school receives from its authorizing district one amount of money for each regular education student they enroll and a larger amount for each special education student. The per-pupil amounts are based on the district’s per-pupil expenditure in each category in the prior year, and they vary considerably. For instance, the amounts for regular education students range from less than $6,000 to more than $18,000 and the special education amounts range from $13,000 to $47,000. The same amounts also go to cyber charters and to regional charters set up by multiple districts, so these schools get vastly varied amounts per student from different districts to provide the same educational services to all.

Is this fair?

That depends on your point of view. Districts think charters get too much. Charters think they get too little.


The formula used to calculate the per-pupil amounts deducts some district expenditures that don’t go directly to schools. Some examples are transportation (of students in district, charter and private schools), other services to nonpublic schools, central administration, and debt service. But many charter advocates say that some of these deductions, such as debt service, are unwarranted and conclude that their schools receive 30 percent less funding to operate than district schools do.

Do the charters have a point?

Yes. For instance, the law does not give charters additional money for buildings, although they can float bonds and get small loan subsidies. But basically, they must finance buildings with their operating dollars. And it is probably time to revisit whether the deductions outlined 20 years ago should still be the same.

Do the districts have a point?

Yes. For instance, one issue in Philadelphia is that its per-pupil spending, which is used to calculate charter reimbursement rates, includes the extra costs of educating English language learners. But charters in the city, with a few exceptions, educate very few ELL students (see chart on p. 15).

What are “stranded costs” that districts complain about?

As students trickle out of a district’s schools and into charters, a district cannot shift all the costs of educating each student to the charter. For example, students in various grades of a school might leave, but not enough to justify reducing the number of teachers. So those portions of teacher salaries are stranded costs. In districts that have high concentrations of charter schools, such as Philadelphia and Chester Upland, these costs add up quickly and can drain budgets

Is there enough money allocated to schools in general in Pennsylvania?

That is what both sides of the charter issue say is the problem. One reason it has been so hard to reform the charter law is that overall state aid to districts in Pennsylvania is low, meaning that districts and charters are fighting over all available dollars and are reluctant to concede one point without addressing all the others.

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