House bill charts new course for charter education

A+mural+of+some+of+the+North+Penn+schools+located+at+the+%22Educational+Services+Center%22+on+E+Hancock+Rd+right+by+Penndale+Middle+School.

Jojo Dalwadi

A mural of some of the North Penn schools located at the “Educational Services Center” on E Hancock Rd right by Penndale Middle School.

For public school districts, like North Penn, all school board members are elected by the community. Those elected board members are in turn then expected to be completely transparent to that same community that elected them. They do so by having all meetings televised and made publicly available through NPTV, they post the agenda’s to each meeting beforehand, they post all financial documents, and let the citizens of the district know that they can make a comment at the start and at the end of every public meeting.

Charter schools are required to do none of that. The only similarity between public and charters in PA, is the fact that they are both mostly funded by taxpayers in their respective districts. So then why are charters spared from letting the community they get their money from know what they’re doing? 

PA State Representative Joe Ciresi of the 146th district, introduced a bill entitled the “Charter School Reform Act of 2021,” which is formally known as House Bill 272. Its aim is to fix the issues outlined in the prior paragraphs. Which is to hold charter schools to the same accountability standards that public schools are held to.

“Public school districts aren’t seeing their budgets, they don’t see who they’re hiring, they don’t see what their administration is doing, they don’t see their building projects or equipment. And the public should have access to all of that, we shouldn’t have to ask for it– it should be automatic. If you want to consider yourself a public school, then you should climb to the same guidelines that a public institution does,” State Rep. Ciresi said. 

If you want to consider yourself a public school, then you should climb to the same guidelines that a public institution does.”

— PA State Representative, Joe Ciresi

Ciresi currently serves as a member of the Education Committee in the People’s House and was once in the same boat that many school board members are in now, when he was a school board member for the Spring-Ford Area School District for a total of 12 years. 

“I saw this first hand what school districts are going through. And I would constantly ask what we were going to do about the charter schools. What’s going on in those buildings, why are we giving them this money, where’s the accountability. If I have to raise taxes in my district, to justify what’s going on with what they need it for, then why aren’t we seeing what’s going on there,” Ciresi continued.

If the bill gets signed into law, charter schools and administrators would have to live by the same financial and ethical reporting standards public school board members and school district officials live up to. Some of the standards would be to allow for public comments at meetings and would have to post their performances so the public can see if they are truly educating their kids properly with the tax dollars they pay for.  

All of that is aimed to prevent the following confusion.

In 2008, charter school enrollment for the average school district sat at 15.5%, and tuition paid by school districts was 8.6%. But a recent study done by the Pennsylvania School Board Association (PSBA), found that from 2007 to 2019, attendance of charter schools rose by 113%– but tuition payments increased 229%. And since they aren’t forced to release budgets or spending history, the local taxpayer is left asking, “why was there a 116% increase in tuition school districts paid?” We don’t know because charters more often than not, don’t release their receipts. 

There are brick-and-mortar charter schools that pertain to in-person learning, and there are cyber charter schools. The issue is that both have the same tuition– meaning they’re equating a physical experience with an online one. And if this year has taught Pennsylvanians anything, it’s that they are not comparable. The second piece is the way that special-ed tuition is calculated. Regular school districts have a three-tiered special ed funding formula based on the severity of the student issues and for the charters and cyber charters, they get their funding through a rate because they don’t have a three-tiered special ed formula that they must use.

“I think you’ll see that those are the two issues that have floated to the top of the pile and that have the most support, and I think that this is a real bipartisan issue that’s been exacerbated by the pandemic because around 30,000 more students went to cyber charters this year because of the pandemic. So that’s a huge amount of money coming out of most school district budgets that was never anticipated so what do you do? PSPA did some reports on this, and the average impact on a school district is over $600,000,” said Larry Feinberg, Director for PA Charter Change

I think that this is a real bipartisan issue that’s been exacerbated by the pandemic because around 30,000 more students went to cyber charters this year because of the pandemic. So that’s a huge amount of money coming out of most school district budgets that was never anticipated so what do you do?”

— Director for PA Charter Change, Larry Feinberg

“The largest Brick and Mortar cyber charter in the state is the Chester community charter school. And nobody knows what the money is used for. It’s a black hole. The school district just writes a check to the charter school management company and you don’t know anything more. That’s a concern and that particular company is owned by a guy who coincidentally happens to be a major political donor. It’s just unbelievable– Public dollars should be subject to public scrutiny,” Feinberg continued on.

And I for one, am not against charter schools in general. I just believe that they should be as transparent as public school districts have to be. It’s easy for me, who lives in Montgomery County, to say that charters are receiving too much funding because I go to a wonderful public school district, that being North Penn. But that doesn’t mean I, and lawmakers in our area, don’t acknowledge the situation public schools are facing in cities like Philadelphia.

“If I live in an area where the school has asbestos, where it has lead, can’t use the restrooms all the time, can’t drink the water, and the equipment is from the 1950s. And I have a beautiful charter school that was built last year that’s state of the art, what am I going to say? Am I going to take away the option for the kids in that city of going to that charter school? How is that going to play? And that’s where our issues are right now. If we never clean up what’s going on in the city, we’re never going to have these charters have anything but what they’ve been doing,” Ciresi acknowledged.

The issue with charter school reform is not a partisan one, but a geographical one it seems like. In our area, Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike are in favor of charter school reform. It is supported by both State Senators in the NPenn area, Collet (P-12) and Mensch (P-24), and also by the House members in our area. HB 272 is co-sponsored by Rep. Malagari and Rep. Hanbidge. 

What HB 272 also does, is instead of just acknowledging that public schools in Philadelphia are facing an issue, so that’s why charter school funding is so important to them, the bill actually does something to fix the root of the issue. If passed and signed into law, Philadelphia school districts will acquire an additional $60 million (could be more) in funding. With that extra money, Philly school districts can finally have the funds needed to better suit their buildings for their students.

And for North Penn specifically,

“The projected savings for the NP school district taxpayers are $620,000 per year if the bill should pass.  This results from a combination of aligning our special education tuition payments to the actual services provided by the charter school and by establishing a flat tuition rate of $9,500/year for a cyber school. Since we saw a spike in cyber school enrollment this year, the actual savings could be much higher,” North Penn’s Chief Financial Officer Steve Skrocki.

Almost at a yearly rate, school districts pass resolution after resolution in support of charter school reform, yet we see nothing being done by PA state legislature. And now, finally, they have a chance to get something done. So far, about 392 of Pennsylvania’s 500 total school districts have passed resolutions in favor of charter reform.

Every dollar taken to pay a charter school is either a dollar less that can be spent on our students or has to be made up by increasing the tax burden on local taxpayers. Rep. Ciresi’s bill would simply make the amount paid to charters more fair & it would save districts and taxpayers money while doing so.”

— North Penn School Board President, Tina Stoll

“They do not have the accountability nor the transparency that is required of public school districts. Every dollar taken to pay a charter school is either a dollar less that can be spent on our students or has to be made up by increasing the tax burden on local taxpayers. Rep. Ciresi’s bill would simply make the amount paid to charters more fair & it would save districts and taxpayers money while doing so. We, as SB directors, have joined with SB directors all over the state to advocate for this much-needed reform, but it’s the PA legislature that has to step up and make it happen,” North Penn School Board President, Tina Stoll explained.

One of the main issues with how charter schools operate in PA, is that there is little to no transparency of how they are running their schools.

“If you disagree with an administrator in a public school institution, you can come out to a board meeting and say it. But nobody knows where to go when there’s a disagreement with what’s happening in a charter school. If you disagree with a contracted issue that’s coming up in the district– for example a $10 million dollar expansion, there is public hearing after hearing after hearing before it gets approved. In a charter, none of that happens,” Ciresi added on.

This is the first time since 1997 that the Pennsylvania state legislature has a legitimate chance to make some type of reform towards charters. All HB 272 asks for, is transparency to the public. Its message is not anti-charter schools, instead, its goal is to level the playing field that public school districts have to abide by.