Advocates for Pennsylvania’s charter schools are worried that Governor Tom Wolf’s new education budget would force some schools to close their doors.
Wolf’s 2015-2016 education budget includes more money for preschool through college education, but one school group is feeling ostracized.
“Charter schools in Pennsylvania are already receiving far less per pupil than their traditional school peers,” said Kara Kerwin, President of the Center for Education Reform. “On average it’s about 30 percent less per pupil.”
Kerwin and others are concerned about the possible effects of Wolf’s proposal that charter schools return all un-spent funds to their local school districts at the end of every year. Kerwin said this would eliminate the opportunity for charter schools to plan for the future and invest in infrastructure, such as new buildings or technology.
Pennsylvania’s approximately 160 charter schools serve more than 100,000 students. According to the governor’s spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan, these schools are sitting on $156 million dollars in excess fund balances.
“What the governor is proposing is simply that we do an annual review to make sure that money that is supposed to be spent on students is being spent on students,” Sheridan said. “Charter schools will still be able to pay their maintenance and infrastructure costs as needed, and we’re not taking away any of their existing fund balances.”
However, traditional public schools have fund balances that total approximately $1.7 billion, according to the Keystone Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Tim Eller, executive director of the alliance, says taking away charter schools’ ability to save could lead to defaults on their loans.
“You’re going to start seeing charter schools closing down across Pennsylvania because a lot of charter schools rely on their fund balances throughout the school year to keep their cash flowing,” Eller said.
Banks might become more hesitant to loan money to charter schools for building projects, says Kerwin, which would limit their expansion.
Kerwin said charter schools serve an important function in Pennsylvania, and pointed to Washington, D.C. as an example. Roughly 45 percent of public school students in D.C. attend charter schools.
“The competition has made the nation’s worst-performing school district do far better,” Kerwin said. “We have seen major gains by all students, those in traditional public schools and in charters.”
The governor’s budget also included a provision that would create a flat tuition rate for school districts to pay to cyber charter schools. Instead of paying between $8,000 and $11,000 for every student who leaves a traditional school and goes to a cyber-school, districts would pay $5,950 per pupil.
Eller says education spending can be reformed, but it’s unfair to target charter schools.
“If there’s going to be streamlining of operations, if there’s going to be savings forced upon charter schools, then all of education needs to experience those savings, just not one sector of education,” Eller said.