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Erie to get relief at the expense of Pennsylvania charter schools

By   /   January 8, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Gov. Tom Wolf’s solution to bail out Pennsylvania’s cash-strapped school districts will slash funding for charter schools.

The plan attempts to restore a line item in the state budget that reimburses school districts for their charter costs by passing them $58 million in Ready to Learn Block Grants. But $8 million of that sum is being diverted from grants that are earmarked specifically for charter schools, and that’s got school choice advocates boiling mad.

Andrew Staub/PA Independent

HOLIDAY JEER: School choice advocates say Gov. Tom Wolf’s latest plan to fund cash-strapped school districts is going to hurt charter schools.

Wolf’s opponents feel this is the latest in a line of attacks on school choice. They also say it’s illegal because, according to the school code, the block grant funds are for improving student achievement, not reimbursing districts for charter costs.

“The Wolf administration appears to be working against charter schools, resulting in the denial of the right of students and their parents to obtain a public charter school education,” said Tim Eller, executive director of the Keystone Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Former Gov. Tom Corbett cut off charter reimbursements in 2011 and the lack of funding has hurt districts from Philadelphia to Erie. Restoring that funding is a bipartisan issue in Harrisburg, backed by the findings of an independent school funding formula commission last year that recommended reinstating the line item in the budget.

School choice advocates are fuming that Wolf wants to take money away from charters to pay for it.

“This move by the Governor of simultaneously cutting funding to charter schools and changing definitions is merely the most recent step in his clear agenda to kill the charter school option in Pennsylvania,” said Bob Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools. “It’s time Gov. Wolf starts treating all public school children equally and not try to go out of his way to undermine the education of students whose families have chosen an alternative public school.”

Choice advocates have been wary of Wolf since last year, when the first-term Democrat proposed seizing charter school reserve funds and slashing cyber charter funding. Wolf advocated against charter expansion in Philadelphia, blocked charter growth in York, and called for defunding charter schools in Chester-Upland.

“The governor believes charter schools can be an important and innovative part of Pennsylvania’s public school system,” Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan emailed Watchdog.

RELATED: School choice advocates howling mad over Wolf’s budget

State officials say many school districts are experiencing economic hardship because of the loss of those charter reimbursements. The cash-strapped School District of the City of Erie is one of those.

In Erie, many parents are pulling their kids out of failing traditional district schools and putting them in public charter schools, whose enrollment more than doubled between 2008 and 2014.

During that span, Erie charter payments tripled and the $85 million the district spent on them “put notable strain on district finances,” according to state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.

“When the commonwealth eliminated the partial charter school tuition reimbursement in 2011, it made financial matters even more strained for Erie’s school district and hundreds of other districts throughout the commonwealth,” DePasquale said. “Reinstating this reimbursement would not solve the district’s financial problems entirely, but it certainly would relieve some of the stress.”

However, that relief is going to come at the expense of charter schools.

A $200 million block grant was first established for the 2014-15 budget and was to be distributed to all public schools, including charters, to maintain and improve academic achievement. The Ready to Learn Block Grant distributed $100 million to school districts based on a 2013-14 Pennsylvania Accountability Grant formula, with the remaining $100 million funneled to school districts and charter schools based on a per-student weighted formula.

In the 2015-16 Public School Code legislative vehicle, House Bill 530, which is awaiting final action by the General Assembly, a similar formula exists that would distribute $250 million to all school entities, which is defined by the bill to include school districts, charter schools or cyber charter schools.

As a solution to get more money to school districts that have been pushing more and more students to charter schools, the Wolf administration released $192 million to districts in the same amount they received in 2014-15, with the remaining $58 million also going to school districts when $8 million of that total should have gone to charter schools.

“The distribution of funding is consistent with the proposed formula in the governor’s 2015-16 Executive Budget, and is part of the agreed-to hybrid funding formula that Republican leaders agreed to and would have been fully enacted as part of the bipartisan budget agreement, but Republican leaders failed to pass the budget,” Sheridan said. “Instead, Republican leaders left town for holiday vacation without passing any of the accompanying code bills, including the school code.”

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Evan is a Pennsylvania-based education reporter for Watchdog.org. An Emmy Award-winning documentary writer, his work has also appeared on RollingStone.com, MensJournal.com, in the pages of the New York Post, and other outlets. His investigative work covering the School District of Philadelphia for Watchdog has been picked up by FOX News, NBC10 Philadelphia, Philadelphia Magazine, PhillyVoice.com and BillyPenn.com, and his series chronicling "ghost teachers" in Philadelphia led to the introduction of a law that would outlaw the practice of pulling teachers from the classroom to work full-time for the local teachers union. Follow him on Twitter @EGwatchdog or email Evan at [email protected] with tips.