Testifiers plea for updated Pa. charter school law during policy hearing

Current policy unfairly impacts funding for public schools

JOHNSTOWN, Oct. 11 — The House Democratic Policy Committee convened a hearing Tuesday afternoon to discuss the need to reform Pennsylvania’s charter school law and address teacher shortages across the state.

The hearing, hosted by Rep. Frank Burns (D-Cambria), featured testimony from several local school district officials and local school board members, as well as a charter school advocacy organization.

“Throughout my time in Harrisburg, I’ve always been a strong advocate for our students and worked to ensure they have the proper resources to receive a quality education,” said Burns. “But it’s clear from today’s testimony that we need to fix Pennsylvania’s outdated ‘cyber charter school’ law and make sure public school funding is no longer impacted by state-mandated ‘cyber charter school’ costs.”

Rob Gleason, President of the Westmont Hilltop School Board, notes the alarming impact charter schools have on property taxes. It’s also something Democratic lawmakers themselves have concerns with, as mentioned during the hearing. Both agree that the current charter school law unfairly funds charter schools and punishes public schools and something needs to change.

“There is no question that charter and cyber charter schools have a place in our public educational system and that they work well for many students,” said Gleason. “However, flaws in the current formulas used to fund charter schools result in school districts overpaying by hundreds of millions of dollars, which comes out of the pockets of local taxpayers and out of school district classrooms.”

Jason Moore, Superintendent of the Central Cambria School District, said taxpayers should be irate with the current method of charter school funding in Pennsylvania. He echoed testimony that cyber charter schools are taking important resources away from public schools without providing quality education. Gleason noted that many school districts are beginning to offer their own cyber education options while keeping costs reasonable for taxpayers, unlike cyber charter schools.

“Not only are they providing an extremely subpar education for students, but they are also robbing the regular public school students of valuable resources that would be better allocated by the school district,” said Moore. “The problem could easily be solved by capping cyber charter tuition billed to public schools to $5k per student, or to require students to attend the home district’s cyber program as the Free and Appropriate Public Education option.”

Members of the Policy Committee did also hear from a charter school advocacy group. Dr. Anne Clark, CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, testified during the hearing as well. Dr. Clark testified that charter schools are being held to the same level of accountability as public schools, and that education is overly regulated. That’s a point Rep. Emily Kinkead (D-Allegheny) strongly disagreed with.

“Public schools are performing a public benefit, but cyber charter graduation rates are not on the same level as public schools, or even brick-and-mortar charter schools. And we don’t vote for charter school board members like we do for public schools,” said Kinkead. “We’re already underfunding our school districts, and this difficulty is compounded by the fact these public schools also are being asked to fund charter schools. We can't be crippling public schools by sending money to schools that don't need this funding as desperately.”

Testimony from Tuesday’s hearing can be found here. Photos from the hearing will be available here.

Information about this hearing and other House Democratic Policy Committee hearings can be found at pahouse.com/policy.