To the editor: In public vs. charter school debate, honesty is essential
Thursday, April 2, 2020 | 11:01 PM
To the editor,
Ana Meyers’ letter of Feb. 25 contains misleading information concerning the impact of charter schools on the public schools of the Pine-Richland School District. She goes one step further in offering inaccurate assessments about how Pennsylvania finances education.
On one major point, Ms. Meyers is correct: When it comes to charter schools, many residents do not hold them in high regard. The reasons are simple and well-documented. Many of these schools have lax and questionable standards and practices on a number of critical fronts, including transparency, accountability and student performance.
Their financial methods are also highly suspect, as they regularly draw off more money per pupil from the local public school than is actually required to cover their costs. Ms. Meyers’ article states, “…(Pine-Richland School District officials) don’t seem to care why these students left their district schools or why their families sent them to a charter school.” In reality, people who support public education and question the integrity of our current charter school industry (and an industry it is), are highly sympathetic to families who feel their child is not in the most optimal learning environment and understand why they would search for better options.
However, far too often these same children and their families are misled by an industry motivated more by profit than by doing the best job possible for these students. Performances of these students, and their outcomes, are frequently lower than those of the public schools. The poor service these students receive has been sold to them as a better alternative to their public education. This simply adds insult to injury to folks already struggling. CREDO (Center for Research on Education Outcomes) said the findings of a recent study reflected “little to no progress” for Pennsylvania’s charter-school sector since 2013, when the state’s charters performed worse than the typical charter school nationally.
Ms. Meyers also asserts that “…(Pine-Richland School District officials) just want the money that comes along with these students. But this taxpayer money doesn’t belong to the PRSD, it belongs to the students who have the right to use it at any public school that best meets their needs.” This is a specious and, frankly, disrespectful argument as regards the democratically elected officials who must answer to the taxpayers for why and how their dollars are being diverted to schools often outside their district and often with radically different standards. The work of these officials is entirely transparent — they must account for their budgets and do not profit personally from taxpayer dollars.
The money for public schools is mainly raised from local property taxes, at rates set by a democratically elected local school board for local control of public education, i.e., funded by the community for the community. When the state authorized charter schools, a major (and highly contested) change occurred that allowed parents to take a chunk of money from the local school district, funded by community tax dollars, and use it at a school outside their district, leaving less shared resources for the remaining children in that district.
But, fundamentally, it is the taxpayers’ money.
In a democratic society, taxpayers have every right to expect that their local tax money will be used for their local school district, rather than funding “public” charter schools run by private, for-profit companies who refuse to be answerable to the taxpayers who fund them.
Ms. Meyers and I do agree that all students of public school, regardless of where and how they receive their education, deserve the same financial support. According to PCCY (Public Citizens for Children and Youth), “The last few years have been tough for Pennsylvania schools, with budget shortfalls forced on school districts around the state…with nearly a billion dollars less in the education coffers. Districts have been forced to cut programs and staff. But what has been a disaster for public schools has been a windfall for charter and cyber schools, with their budgets increasing every year — with each year a significantly higher boost than the year before — to the point where funding is up 164% over the last five years. Unfortunately, this money is coming directly out of the pockets of public schools, while charter and cyber schools are sitting on more than $400 million in reserves.”
The fact is that lax oversight has allowed the private companies that run public charter schools to drain hundreds of millions annually from our state.
Another recent report shows that the funding formula is so broken that when you factor in how much money the cyber charter schools receive per pupil as compared to how much it actually costs to educate those students, we, the taxpayers, are overpaying them by $290 million per year.
Communities are at risk when those who are motivated largely by profit are responsible for educating children, especially with poor regulation and oversight. As an example: A couple of years ago, the founder of PA Cyber Charter School was convicted of tax fraud for funneling millions of taxpayer dollars meant for education into for-profit and not-for-profit entities that he controlled for his own private use. One would think that if charter schools truly cared about providing the quality educational alternative they are selling to the public, they would welcome charter reform, open up their books and earn the trust of the community. If they want public money, they need to be answerable and accountable to the public.
A final misleading claim of Ms. Meyers is that school districts on average keep 25% of the funding allocated for a student in their district when the child goes to a charter school. What Ms. Meyers does not mention is that this funding is kept because even when a student leaves for a charter school, the school district still has costs for that student. Districts are responsible for transportation to school for these charter students if it is within 10 miles of the boundary of the district. The district must also allow the students to participate in extracurricular activities and athletics. These services cost money—money that comes from the public schools, not the charter.
Additionally, districts must pay out much larger fixed amounts for students with disabilities, regardless of the severity of the disability. For this year, Pine-Richland School District taxpayers are paying the charter school $25,274 per student with a disability, even if the student has a “low-cost” disability such as requiring speech therapy. This helps to explain why many charter schools actively seek to enroll students with less financially demanding disabilities. Rather than prioritizing a desire to help those students, their main incentive is to increase revenue. A more prudent, respectable and responsible use of taxpayer money would have payment rates reflect the actual costs.
Finally, there is one indisputable fact that must be mentioned: good public schools are in the best interests of all those who live in a particular community. Folks don’t move to a neighborhood based on the purported quality of a charter school that might be in proximity; they move based on the local public school district — even if they ultimately choose to send their child elsewhere.
Strong public schools are a public asset. They help define the character of a community, create strong property values, typically help reduce the rate of crime and combat other societal challenges. The municipalities within the Pine-Richland School District are desirable precisely because of the quality of the schools, among other factors.
The public versus charter school controversy is an ongoing discussion. But what is essential for the good of our communities and our children is that when each side presents an argument, it must be factual, transparent and, most of all, honest.
Candidate for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, 28th District
Executive Director, No Crayon Left Behind