Report: Charter-school popularity, costs grow in Pa. suburbs, but academic results mixed

The Chester-Upland School District has the highest concentration of charter-school enrollment — 54 percent of students — among school districts in Philadelphia’s collar counties, a new report says.

While charter-school enrollments — and costs — are growing in Philadelphia’s collar counties, their academic results constitute a “mixed bag,” with cyber-charter pupils in particular performing worse than those in similarly situated traditional public schools, according to a report released Thursday.

Recommendations in the study by the Public Citizens for Children and Youth, a Philadelphia-based advocacy organization, include tighter financial controls and better oversight for charter operations.

The report found that half the suburban charter schools in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties fared worse on state tests in the 2015-16 school year than districts with similar shares of disadvantaged students.

Nearly all cyber charter schools — which are drawing an increasing share of suburban students — did worse than districts with similar demographics, according to the report.

At the same time, charter schools are receiving a greater portion of school district budgets. Suburban districts sent charters $217 million in 2016, up $73 million from five years earlier, according to the report.

“In most of these school districts, it’s a very modest portion of their budget, but they’re seeing that grow,” said Donna Cooper, executive director of PCCY. Combined with other costs to districts, like pension and special-education obligations, “all of that’s eating into the ability to deliver quality instruction,” Cooper said.

In addition to analyzing charter-school performance, which Cooper called a “mixed bag,” the report identified a number of issues involving funding and spending.

Districts sent $46 million to charters in 2016 for special education — yet the charters spent just $27 million on special education, according to the PCCY report. It also found that administrative costs were significantly higher in charters enrolling suburban students than in the districts, with 17 percent of the charter budgets on average going toward administration, vs. 5 percent of suburban district budgets.

Pennsylvania’s “weak and outdated” charter-school law “has created a public-charter system that is driving up costs with little to show performance-wise in southeast Pennsylvania,” the report said. It recommended a series of changes at the state level, including reinstating money cut from the state budget in 2011 that had reimbursed school districts for some of the costs of students enrolled in charters.

The report also called for implementing a standardized rate for payments to cyber charter schools, which receive the same level of funding from districts as brick-and-mortar charters, although their operating costs are lower.

School districts pay charter schools based on how much each district spends per student — an amount that varies, since districts are funded at different levels and raise differing amounts of taxes.

For suburban students receiving regular education services, districts send charters $8,000 to $18,000 per student, depending on the district, according to the report.

On special-education services, the report calls for changing how charter schools are funded. As with other students, districts pay charter schools for special-education pupils based on what each district spends on its own special-education students.

But charter schools tend to enroll students with less severe needs than those receiving special-education services in district schools, according to the report, citing findings by a state commission in 2013.

Thus, as charter enrollment grows, the concentration of higher-needs special-education students in district schools increases. Charter schools benefit because they stand to be reimbursed at the higher rates, even as the traditional schools are left to accommodate students with more severe needs, the report said.

The state’s special-education funding formula for district schools should take that into account, the report said.

Tim Eller, executive director of the Keystone Alliance for Public Charter Schools, which advocates for brick-and-mortar charter schools in Pennsylvania, said such a change would “bankrupt” the schools, “due to how public charter schools are funded.”

Overall, Eller said, charter-school students statewide receive 25 percent less funding on average than their peers in traditional public schools.

“While the Keystone Alliance believes public charter school funding must be reviewed to ensure fairness for all public school students (charter and traditional), it must be a comprehensive approach that ensures that public charter school students receive equitable funding,” Eller said.

“All aspects of public charter school funding, including non-special education, special education, transportation, facility, and capital, must be reviewed.”

He said charter schools “exist in communities where the traditional public schools are failing their students.”

More than 15,000 students in the Philadelphia suburbs attend charter schools, up 3,800 over the last five years, according to the PCCY report. But enrollment varies widely. While most of the 61 suburban school districts have fewer than 2 percent of students enrolled in charters, 13 districts have more than 5 percent of students enrolled. Chester-Upland tops the list, with 54 percent. Next is the Coatesville Area School District, with nearly 23 percent of students in charters, followed by Bensalem Township and Avon Grove, which each have a little more than 14 percent in charters.

And enrollment goes beyond the 12 brick-and-mortar charter schools, which account for 75 percent of suburban charter enrollment. Every suburban district has students enrolled in cyber charters, according to the report.

Performance at those schools is “consistently poor,” it said, adding that of the 13 cyber schools enrolling suburban students, 11 have worse scores on the state’s School Performance Profile than 90 percent of suburban districts.

Cooper said there was “an extraordinary problem associated with the oversight of cyber charters. This is not something that is just an urban issue now.”