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The Story of Charter Schools

As we inch closer and closer to the June deadline, the PA House of Representatives’ Education Committee must make a decision. The education funding formula for charter and cyber charter schools has been under scrutiny for some time. School districts are seeing funding deficits in their budgets that are causing them to cut educational programs. Cyber and charter schools see the threat of funding cuts that may ultimately result in their demise. Everyone is struggling to provide what’s best for the students of pubic education. But, it seems that the waters have become muddied. What is best? What moves will ultimately serve the constituents? And what decisions will help to make our current educational framework not only stronger, but more effective, and more meaningful for the citizens of this country?

The School Choice Movement is a democratic ideal brought to families of Pennsylvania in an attempt to give back the right to options. When traditional schools across the country started failing, one determined option was to give parents choices. Charter schools are public institutions that operate without all of the same restrictions that traditional public schools face. (Although many regulations do apply, such as committing to take and pass standardized state tests, and receive scoring evaluations based on test results.)

Ultimately, these schools operate based on a charter, which is written and approved by an authorizing body. In the case of 21CCCS, our charter is held by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, (PDE). The drafting and approval of a charter means that all schools are designed and run under an intentional set of operating guidelines. They have a designated purpose and learning model. Because all charters have been written by different groups of individuals for different purposes, this also means that each one operates a little differently from the next.

So, what does “different” entail? As the CCSA describes, “Some charter schools provide a curriculum that specializes in a certain field—e.g., arts, mathematics, or vocational training, while others attempt to provide a better and more cost efficient general education than nearby non-charter public schools.” Charter schools were also conceived to act as sorts of brainstorm centers. It was believed that these schools could become places of innovation, where alternative learning models and teaching strategies could be tested. Such testing could ultimately aid and assist traditional school districts where they were failing. Trying many models and alternatives would give many options to school districts in need of innovative ways to better themselves.

So, what happened? Charter schools started to be seen as a great option. Parents and students liked charter schools. They liked them, and so they grew. As reported recently by columnist Martha Woodall, “Pennsylvania’s 157 charter schools and 16 cyber charters enroll more than 110,000 students.” With more and more students opting out of traditional brick-and-mortar schools, the shift in funding has become more and more apparent.

So, what’s the big deal? The big deal is that we need a way to fund this growing educational alternative. The state does not currently provide a direct payment model for charter or cyber charter schools. This means that no additional funding has been pumped into PA state’s budget for education, considering the now 173 alternative schools in the state.

Educational funding for charter and cyber charter and  in PA is based entirely on school districts. Money flows from the school district to a child’s school of choice when he/she enrolls in a new public school. Some students come from school districts that spend $8,000 per year to educate, while others come from schools that spend upwards of $15,000 per year to educate. However, whatever amount of money is spent on a student in a given school district is not the same amount that will be put towards his/her cyber charter education. Instead, charter and cyber charter schools operate on about 70% of that amount. This means that cyber charter schools operate with various amounts of funds, each being contributed for a different student depending on the district in which he resides.

This becomes problematic when a traditional school has budgeted for the school year under the assumption that average enrollment numbers will be seen from year to year. Instead, students have begun leaving traditional school districts in larger numbers. As a result, those schools suddenly feel a much heavier weight with the loss of funds once received to educate those students.

So, the funding formula is not working. The students who remain in traditional bricks-and-mortar feel a change in their schools, as well. Programs that once existed are getting cut. But there are other ramifications for the families who choose a different type of public school. Some families have reported being mocked, questioned, or judged for making decisions to leave the the school district. This separation is causing a sort of discrimination that only adds fuel to the fiscal controversy at hand.

For our school, we continue to argue that students have earned a choice. They deserve the chance to choose the school and instructional methods that will work best for them. That means we hope to retain appropriate funding to provide such instruction. Any of the bills currently pending approval in the House Committee of Education that request cuts to charter and cyber charter schools will hurt our cause. Cuts will hurt our students.

Keep yourselves informed! Follow what’s happening across the educational landscape, and respond to your legislators. Let them know what YOU want and what will benefit YOUR children! And, always let us know how we can help!