January 27, 2020
My name is Jim Scanlon. For the last 11 years, I have served as superintendent of the West Chester Area School District, a district of more than 12,000 students. I've been a school superintendent for 21 years, and I've been providing input on charter school law for more than two decades, and the only revisions to charter law in that time have further undermined local control--and reduced our ability to hold schools accountable---- and that has to change.
As school leaders, we share tremendous concerns about the lack of accountability of charter schools in Pennsylvania and how they are draining funds from public schools. Charter school cost and accountability is not just an urban issue. It's an issue for all school districts in the Commonwealth.
A recent survey shows Charter School Reform and Accountability is the Number One Priority for School Board Members in Chester County- even above hot issues like property tax reform.
Cyber charter schools have become an increasing drain -- There are currently 15 operating cyber charter schools in PA, and most are on the list of the state's lowest-achieving public schools. The 21st Century Cyber Charter School ranks among the highest with just a 54% graduation rate. Meanwhile, the state graduation rate average for all public high schools is 85%.
In the West Chester Area School District, in 2015, 717 of our students enrolled in charter schools. Of those, 140 were cyber charter students enrolled in 11 different cyber charter schools, and 577 were enrolled in five different brick and mortar charter schools. Our tuition costs were $9.4 million.
Thanks to an aggressive effort to return students to our district, this year, we now enroll 482 students in charter schools with 159 of them attending cyber charters. Despite a drop in enrollment of 235 students, our tuition costs remain at $9.4 million.
Something does not add up!
Why hasn't the cost gone down? Because 91students are identified as special education students. And with that, we send a payment of $31,000, compared to the $13,100 for a regular education student. The cyber charter schools show 19% of their students coming from West Chester, while our district only has a special education population of less than 13%. The way the charter laws are currently written, there is one tuition rate for a school district for a special education student. So if a child only needs speech and language help one day per week, rather than the $1,500 cost for that service, we are paying $31,100. This flat-rate calculation is inequitable and quite frankly, ridiculous.
And what are charter schools doing with all of this additional money? In our school district, there are two brick and mortar charters and two cyber charters operating. In 2017-18, One of our brick and mortars, Collegium, collected $14.9 million in special education tuitions from five sending public school districts, but on their annual financial report to the Department of Education, they reported they only spent $4.5 million on special education. That's an additional $10.4 million- in just one year. WHERE did that money go? Excess, unspent tuitions for other charter and cyber charters are also in the millions. Our taxpayers are footing those bills. And they deserve better.
We support an online option for students, as there are good reasons for students to attend. However, school districts can provide cyber education at a fraction of the cost of cyber charter schools. That's why we are starting a cyber school program next year. We can provide certified teachers, a high-quality program -- at a fraction of the costs.
The Chester County IU program costs $5400 per student, vs. $13,100 for a cyber-charter. They charge only for the special education services provided. The largest tuition they have ever charged a school district in the five years they have been operating is $8,500 for special education services. Again, much less than the $31,000 we are forced to send to the 15 cyber charter schools.
Every school district sending students to charter schools can share a similar story. This broken funding formula needs to be corrected. We are asking the governor and members of the general assembly to do the following:
- Establish a statewide Cyber tuition rate comparable to school district The Governor has proposed a $9,500 flat tuition rate. While we believe this is still too high, the idea of a flat tuition rate is certainly more equitable.
- Place a moratorium on any new cyber or charter schools until serious reform can be Stop putting taxpayer dollars toward poorly performing cyber and charter schools that are undermining public education.
Pa. Superintendents Join to Demand Charter School Reform Ahead of Wolf’s Budget Proposal
As school districts send increasingly larger shares of their budgets to charter schools, nearly 30 superintendents from across the Philadelphia area joined Monday to call for changes to Pennsylvania’s charter law in a collaboration they described as unprecedented.
District leaders said they hoped Gov. Tom Wolf — who pledged charter change last year — would make the issue a priority in his budget address next week, including by calling for a moratorium on new charters and expansion of existing schools.