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Shown is the state capitol building in Harrisburg.

Photo: Kevin McCorry/WHYY

Kevin McCorry / WHYY

State Senate Appropriations Committee approves establishment of charter school funding commission

Among the commission’s tasks would be examining the financial oversight of schools and management companies.

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

Updated (4:14 pm) to include a quote from School Board President Joyce Wilkerson.

The General Assembly would establish a commission to review the state’s method for funding charter schools and suggest changes under a bill that was unanimously approved Tuesday by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The Charter School Funding Advisory Commission would compare Pennsylvania’s funding mechanism to those in other states and base its recommendations on the actual cost of educating students in charters of all kinds. The commission’s scope extends more broadly, as well, encompassing the financial oversight by districts and the state of charter schools, management companies, and facilities. Based on the Special Education Commission and the PlanCon Advisory Committee, it will hold public hearings to consider making further recommendations.

“Our current charter funding systems create many inequities,” School Board President Joyce Wilkerson said in a statement. “We support action by the General Assembly to help resolve these inequities, including the proposed Charter School Funding Commission.” The commission would issue a report after 18 months if Senate Bill 806 passes. Short of going up for a full vote in both houses of the legislature, the bill could be incorporated into an “omnibus” school code during budget negotiations next week, according to a source in the State Senate.

The bill was introduced by Republican State Sen. Pat Browne of Allentown.

“Given that is has been 22 years since the Commonwealth established funding of charter schools, it is necessary that we evaluate how the state currently distributes funding for charter schools and recommend improvements,” Browne said in a statement. Previous bipartisan commissions on special education, basic education, and school construction costs have “built a consensus,” making recommendations through the same process.

This commission would also examine how to implement the state Special Education Funding Commission’s recommendations in the state’s charter schools. That commission recommended a tiered payment system based on the severity of a student’s disability, which was adopted regarding state aid to districts. However, charter schools continue to get one payment regardless of the severity of a student’s disability – a system that has been criticized as a windfall for some charters because the payments are high while most special education students in charter schools have milder, less expensive disabilities.

The bill’s co-sponsors include local Democratic State Sens. Vincent Hughes and Sharif Street. Membership of the commission would be bipartisan: the Republican and Democratic chairs of the Appropriations and Education committees, two members appointed by the Republican Senate and House leadership, and one member appointed by the Democratic House and Senate leadership.

A memo from Browne’s office outlines the following “powers and duties” of the commission:

  • Meet with current charter and cyber school entity operators, school district personnel and other public education organizations.
  • Review charter school entity financing laws in operation in other states.
  • Calculate the actual cost of educating a child in a charter and cyber school.
  • Examine the process by which charter school entities are funded under section 1725-A, including addressing potential funding inequities and consideration of continuing the school district deduction for cyber charter school tuition cost.
  • Determine the appropriate funding and financial oversight for charter school entity facilities and management.
  • Explore other funding issues raised in the course of the public hearings.
  • Consideration of the school district deduction for programs and services to the extent they are funded from the proceeds of competitive grants from private or public resources or from contributions or donations from private sources.
  • Study the appropriate manner of funding a charter school that primarily serves adjudicated youth.
  • Consideration of the appropriate manner of implementing the recommendations of the Special Education Funding Commission with respect to charter school entities, based on the manner in which the commission’s recommendations have been implemented for school districts.