Officials put focus on charter funding

Charter school officials and rural public school district superintendents had the attention of Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale on Thursday at the Cambria County Courthouse.

DePasquale’s hearing with representatives of both sides of the ongoing charter funding debate was part of a multi-hearing process across the state, he said.

In about a month, he will release a report including all the testimonies he’s heard, as well as recommendations he’ll

have made for improving Pennsylvania charter school law.

“Regardless of what side of the charter school issue you’re on, it’s agreed that its not working. We need to find a better way to make this work,” he said during the hearing.

DePasquale listened intently as superintendents of Rockwood Area, Ott-Eldred, and Penns Valley Area school districts talked about the price tag attached to students who choose a charter or cyber school over their district.

Money comes out of school district budgets for charter tuition, but costs of staff and utilities for districts are not decreased when students choose to attend charter schools.

And the amount of taxpayer money that follows the child to cyber school has nothing to do with cyber school costs; it’s based on the costs districts would spend to educate the child. The result is that some districts pay thousands of dollars more than others to send students to the same charter school.

During the hearing, Rep. Bryan Barbin, D-Johnstown, said there’s currently $1 billion coming out of the state’s 500 school districts that goes to the state’s 159 charters and cyber charters. And neither legislators nor public school officials know how charters spend that money.

“We have to stop paying [cyber charters] based on sending schools’ costs,” Barbin said.

Penns Valley Area Superintendent Brian Griffith recommended excluding extracurricular costs from a school district’s charter tuition calculation. Charter school students can participate in their home school district’s extracurricular activities.

Many districts including his own have been able to provide in-house cyber programs

costing $3,000

per student. Griffiths recommends reducing charter tuition by 60 percent to more closely mirror the cost school districts have been able to spend to provide cyber programs. Barbin took interest in that suggestion, as it would save the state’s school districts at least $100 million.

Commonwealth Connections Academy Chief Executive Officer Maurice Flurie, a former public school district official, was sympathetic to rural schools’ situation.

“In basic terms, that’s correct. There’s no connection with money following the student and the services of cyber schools … but the amount school districts spend per student is the amount their communities [set for each student’s education], and I don’t think we can discount that,” he said.

Flurie elaborated on his school’s costs and noted that, unlike traditional schools, charter schools cannot generate revenue through raising tax millage. And although tuition comes from districts in different amounts, all tuition the school receives is combined and equally divided at about 8,900 per student. Federal money increases the total amount.

He said his school’s testing expenses are projected to be $800,000 to $1 million for renting facilities where his cyber students will take state exams this year.

Shipping equipment, developing curriculum and tracking student performance all comes at a cost, he said. The school also has travel expenses for their privately contracted providers of special education services that often exceed the cost of the services, which are mandated by federal law for charters and traditional schools.

Anthony Pirrello, chief executive officer of the high-performing Montessori Regional Charter School in Erie, said he sees a need for laws detailing equal standards for charters and school districts.

He said school districts have had red flags, including misplaced funds, revealed in their general audits.

Those errors at school districts went without punishment, he said, but the same errors, under current charter school law, would have caused the closure of a charter school.

“The double standard in scrutiny is clear,” he said.

Looking at records provided by superintendents, Rep. Tim Burns, D-Johnstown, noted that a majority of charters and cyber charters are vastly underperforming compared with traditional public school districts.

“It’s a significant difference,” he said.

He said he plans to

tour charter facilities.

“Anything that can provide oversight and better education, I’m in favor of. In the end, it’s about what’s right for the kids,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.