The tension between charter school advocates and those who support traditional schools often comes down to money. Charters are public and funded by tax dollars, but many argue the schools siphon scarce resources.
Last year, Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale called for an overhaul of the state’s charter school law.
“I am not saying we have the worst charter schools in the United States, " he said. "I am saying we have the worst charter school law in the United States."
DePasquale said in the four years he has been Auditor General, 10 of the 15 charters his office audited had ties to property owners which contradicts the law that states buildings owned by a charter school are ineligible for lease reimbursement. He blamed the state’s Department of Education for not verifying ownership of charter school buildings. One of the schools cited was Propel, a Pittsburgh-area charter system with 11 schools. Administrators denied any conflict of interest.
There's shortage of Pennsylvania legislators who want to reform the state’s charter law, including Sen. Jim Brewster.
“My goal here is to have charter schools continue to grow, continue to do what they’re doing. I’m critical of the process,” he said.
Charters are publicly funded, privately operated schools. Pennsylvania law requires a local school district to vet new schools and those renewing their charter. The public district then writes a check to a charter based on a funding formula set by the state.
Brewster’s legislation would allow a school board to consider the financial impact a charter would have on the district as part of the authorization process. Brewster said he estimates about 40 districts in the state are at risk of closing as parents are choosing charters.
He commissioned a report that was released last month from the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee that said the way the state funds charter schools is not sustainable. The report also cited cyber charter schools exceeded actual costs they were getting from the state.
That’s what representative Mike Reese of Westmoreland County wants to address. He has proposed legislation that would deduct from the per-pupil costs that a district sends to a cyber charter for things that cyber schools don’t have like libraries and cafeterias.
The legislation would also create a funding commission to review the funding formula for brick and mortar schools.
“Obviously, there is a level of burden on our traditional public schools with those costs. So I think they have to look at that,” he said.
In Pennsylvania, charter schools are funded by payments from the school district the student lives in. But a student can attend a neighboring charter school approved by another school board and the district has to pay for that student to go there. The district also has to pay for transportation up to a 10-mile radius of city limits for a student to get to their charter school.
The Pittsburgh Public School district has budgeted to spend about 12 percent of its budget on charter schools in the next year. The district pays $14,000 per charter school student and $24,000 for its traditional public school students.
Vince Lepera was the treasurer for Urban Academy when the charter school opened in 1998. It was the first charter to open in Pittsburgh and drew students from neighboring districts. He said part of the problem with the funding model is districts see charters draining their resources.
“If we were to get our money directly from the state, and bypass the Pittsburgh Public Schools, let them retain their portion, they wouldn’t view it as an expense,” he said. “They view it as an expense because it flows to them and then it flows to us. And I think that misconception is that they keep and retain a portion of those subsidies for not even touching a student.”
One of the common criticisms is that charter schools operate like a business. In Pennsylvania, a charter must be organized as a non-profit, but a for-profit company can manage the school. The State Department of Education said it doesn’t have comprehensive data on which schools are operated by a for-profit. As far as the culture of the schools, Ron Sofo, CEO of City Charter High School said operating like a business is imperative. He often refers to students as clients and new teachers as apprentices.
“No one has to come to us," he said. "It’s not like I live in a certain part of town, this is your high school, this is where you go. So if we’re not providing an experience that students will buy with their time, we don’t exist."
Nationally, the Trump admiration is promising more choice. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is a proponent of choice including charter schools and vouchers that help low-income families pay for private school. In early drafts of budgets, her office has proposed as much as a 50 percent increase to charter school funding.
Devos spoke at the National Charter School Conference Tuesday telling advocates and leaders that their schools are not the cure-all to quote the ills that beset education. She said there wasn’t a cure-all, but she said choice is helping.
Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Hamlet said charter funding does affect the district, but mostly he said there isn’t a level playing field.
“The money follows the students so if students are leaving, you’re losing dollars toward your traditional public schools. But also, the rules aren’t the same,” he said.
Hamlet said since a charter school gets public funds, they should be bound to the same rules. Twenty years after the law was approved, legislators say those changes are coming.