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Cyber charters cripple public schools

Due to the economic implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pennsylvania’s public school districts face declining local revenue collection that is projected to range from $850 million to more than $1 billion for 2020-21.

At the same time, Pennsylvania cyber charter schools are entitled to over $70 million in federal education stimulus funds this fiscal year to help them weather the financial crisis when they have not experienced any revenue cuts.

Pennsylvania’s flawed charter school funding formula already results in overpayments to charter schools and in a time when school districts are facing significant financial issues as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, this concerning use of taxpayer money should not be allowed to continue.

These valuable resources should be utilized to keep public school districts running rather than overfunding cyber charter schools that are receiving additional financial gains by other means.

Even as Pennsylvania’s public school districts work tirelessly to bring the 2019-20 school year to completion, districts are looking to the weeks and months ahead.

School leaders have been told to “prepare for the best, but plan for the worst” in order to keep students safe and healthy for a fall reopening. Additionally, new requirements will bring new local challenges and additional costs.

Pennsylvania public schools have risen to the unprecedented occasion to provide education to the commonwealth’s students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Schools have become creative and innovative and used whatever resources they could muster to deal with the local, diverse obstacles they face. In these difficult and challenging times, school districts need Harrisburg policymakers to help schools reduce costs and remove the barriers that hamper local innovation.

Exasperating the issue is that school district payments to charter schools are up 229% over 11 years and now surpass $2 billion. In fact, 6¢ cents of every dollar school districts spent in 2018-19 went to charter tuition payments.

That is more than double what it was 10 years earlier.

Most concerning is that public school district charter tuition rates are calculated based on a school district’s expenses for the previous school year. This means that the widespread changes to education due to the COVID-19 pandemic have not yet impacted the tuition rates that a school district must pay charters, even though school districts are losing significant revenue in order to keep up with charter payments.

To add insult to injury, Act 13 of 2020 required public school districts to continue paying charter schools the same amount that would have been due to the charter school had public schools not been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, more than ever, school districts need support from the General Assembly as they continue to navigate these new and developing situations with the health and safety of their students in mind.

Enacting meaningful charter reform has the potential to save school districts hundreds of millions of dollars, and with billions in projected losses in state revenue due to COVID-19, this goal can be accomplished through state policy changes that do not require additional state appropriations.

On behalf of all public schools across the commonwealth, I earnestly request the public to contact their local senators and representatives to express their grave concern of the flawed cyber charter school funding model and the financial damage it is wreaking upon our public schools.

Cyber charter school overpayment has always been a growing problem well before the COVID-19 crisis. Now it is an issue Pennsylvania cannot afford to overlook for one more year.

George Pyo is president of the Penn Cambria School District Board.

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