Amend state school code to reflect realities of charter funding

Students of the World Communications Charter School leave the building, located in the 1400 block of South Street, at the end of the school day on Oct. 4, 2012

Over the last three decades charter schools have become one of the most widespread reforms within the American education system.

First to conceptualize them in the 1970s was Professor Ray Budde, who saw in charter schools an opportunity to reorganize districts and "provide teachers increased responsibility over curriculum and instruction in exchange for a greater degree of accountability for student achievement." Support for public charter schools continued to rise and, in 1991, Minnesota became the first state to pass a charter school law. Since then, 42 other states and the District of Columbia have enacted charter school legislation. Today, more than 6,500 charter schools serve about 3 million children.

On June 19, Pennsylvania celebrated the 20-year anniversary of Gov. Tom Ridge signing into law Act 22, which charged charter schools with the responsibility to improve, among others things, pupil learning and teaching pedagogy. In the fall of 1997, the first four charters - Harambee Institute of Science and Technology, Community Academy of Philadelphia, World Communications, and Youth Build Philadelphia - opened their doors in Philadelphia. Two decades later, close to 135,000 students attend one of the commonwealth's 177 charter schools (163 bricks/mortar and 14 cyber charters) operating within 27 counties.

Pennsylvania has work to do in strengthening its charter school laws. That's one conclusion drawn from the 2016 Measuring Up to the Model - a ranking of state charter school laws - which placed the Keystone State 31st among 42 states and the District of Columbia. This report, now in its seventh year, is the product of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a not-for-profit advocate of the movement.

Among Pennsylvania's most notable weaknesses is its charter school funding process. According to the commonwealth's Public School Code (Section 1725-A), charter school instructional expenses are estimated based upon their sponsoring district's daily average cost after deducting certain expenses, including adult education programs, community programs, facilities acquisition, debt service, and transportation.

But charter schools generally face different instructional costs than their sponsoring district. Charter schools in Pennsylvania for instance, may hire nonunionized teachers and up to 25 percent of them could be uncertified. Further, transportation cost is of minimal concern as school districts use their own resources to transfer charter school students within a 10-mile radius. Last but not least, charter schools often manage to keep capital costs low by leasing or renovating district buildings instead of undertaking multimillion-dollar capital projects, as has been the case with public school districts.

Evidently, a number of charter schools, if not most of them, develop the ability to reduce their service costs. They get reimbursed, however, as if they were facing the same operational costs with their public school counterparts. According to Pennsylvania's School Boards Association, this funding framework "bears no relationship to the actual instructional costs incurred by the charter schools." Therefore, redefining the code so that the charter schools' actual costs - not the home districts' - drive the funding process is the first step to improve distribution fairness.

Surprisingly, the school code makes no distinction between bricks/mortar and cyber charters. As a result, the same funding process and calculations are applied to both types of schools. However, online education generally bears different costs than in class instruction. Funding for cyber charter schools, therefore, should follow its own process and calculations and should be different than the one used for brick/mortar charter schools. Additionally, since in Pennsylvania the commonwealth, not the school district, acts as the authorizer for cyber charters, funding for these schools should become an exclusive state responsibility.

Charters schools know far more than their school districts how much it costs them to educate their students. They should be responsible, therefore, for developing their own budget instead of relying on one prepared by their sponsoring school district.

Public schools and charters exist for a single purpose - educate the youth. However, the cost of educating a student may differ between traditional public schools and charters - both brick/mortar and cyber. The state school code, if it is to be efficient, should pay greater attention to the unique costs education providers bear.

Theodore Arapis is an assistant professor at Villanova University's Department of Public Administration. theodoros.arapis@villanova.edu

Leslie Frisbie is a business administrator at Northwestern Lehigh School District. frisbiel@nwlehighsd.org

They are fellows with the Education Policy and Leadership Center (www.eplc.org).

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