(The Center Square) – Gov. Tom Wolf’s $37.8 billion spending proposal prioritizes a $2 billion boost in public education funding to tackle crumbling school buildings, stagnating teacher salaries and dwindling achievement among disadvantaged students.
But charter schools and the 170,000 students they serve across the state would see their funding cut under the governor’s plan through policies that standardize tuition rates and lessen the amount some districts pay.
“Finally, we will be able to fully and fairly fund every school, in every school district, in every part of the commonwealth,” Wolf said during his annual budget address Wednesday. “Putting all this funding through the fair funding formula means that struggling schools will finally get the resources they need without taking away from schools already being adequately funded.”
Wolf’s comments reference a 2016 revamp to the state’s education funding formula that prioritizes disadvantaged students. Instead of just funneling new appropriations through the formula, the governor wants to push all of the $8.1 billion he proposes spending on public education through it, drastically shifting appropriations across the state’s 501 school districts. He said $1.35 billion in tax revenues from the proposed hike would “make whole” the districts that stand to lose funding under the new allocation.
It’s just one of the governor’s more controversial ideas – on top of a $3 billion personal income tax hike – to fix inequities in school funding. Critics have long maintained that questionable management practices and failing test grades don’t justify the ever rising cost of charter tuition that districts must pay, which the administration says ranges anywhere from $9,170 to $22,300 per student.
“Gov. Wolf’s charter school reform plan is a significant step toward the kinds of reforms that PSEA has been encouraging for years,” said Rich Askey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union. “It’s long past time that we fund charter and cyber charter schools in a way that is fair, transparent, and accountable. We are looking forward to partnering with the governor and legislators to explore how we can achieve that.”
But school choice advocates say the proposal will cut $130 million from charters at a time when their enrollment statewide increased by 20,000. Wolf’s call to redistribute all special education funding through the state formula – not just the money appropriated since 2015 – will result in another $99 million reduction, said Jessica Hickernell, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Coalition for Public Charter Schools.
“We actually think that’s a low estimate,” she said. “It would cut special education funding per student in half in Philadelphia alone.”
Wolf said the update fixes an antiquated assumption that 16 percent of all students in charters qualify for special education services. But, Hickernell said, traditional public schools won’t see a change in how their special education dollars are allocated.
“While the governor may call them ‘savings’ they are not,” said Crystal Porter, the parent of a special education student at Mastery Charter School in Philadelphia. “These are massive direct cuts to mostly Black and brown children in Philadelphia. In the name of equity, the governor is cutting half the funding of our most vulnerable students like my son. How is that equitable?”
Republican leaders in the House and Senate likewise panned the budget proposal as dead on arrival. Instead, President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Bellefonte, Education Committee Majority Chairman Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, and Sen. John DiSanto, R-New Bloomfield, announced plans for their own school funding bill – the Excellence in Education for All Act.
The forthcoming bill’s priorities include expanding tax credit scholarship programs – of which the governor has sought to limit during his six years in office – and expanding other avenues of school choice, from charters to “education learning pods.”
Democrats and Wolf will likely resist such policies as detrimental to public schools, themselves already hampered by the rising costs of charter tuition, personal protective equipment and social distancing requirements. The governor on Wednesday blamed unpredictable charter tuition rates for forcing local property tax hikes – a criticism that PCPCS CEO Lenny McAllister says “scapegoats” the children in charter schools.
“In Philadelphia, Wolf’s proposal would result in school district students receiving twice as much funding for their special education services than students with those same needs attending a public charter school,” he said. “Over 25 percent of all kids in Philadelphia attend a charter school. Why should they get less?”