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Republicans hammer education leaders over proposed charter school cuts in Pennsylvania

By Christen Smith (the Center Square)

 (The Center Square) – Republicans in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives pressed the Department of Education on Monday over the governor’s proposed cuts to charter school funding, even as the public districts meant to benefit sit on millions in reserves and federal disaster aid, they said.

The questions came during a six hour budget hearing with the House Appropriations Committee in which GOP members pointed to a disconnect between Gov. Tom Wolf’s call to raise taxes and send more money to public schools – except charters.

Acting Secretary of Education Noe Ortega testifies before the House Appropriations Committee on March 1, 2021. Image courtesy of the Pennsylvania House Republican Caucus

“The governor is proposing cutting millions of dollars from charters at a time when parents are overwhelmingly choosing them,” said Rep. John Lawrence, R-West Grove. “Without charters we would be in real trouble … so I find the governor’s timing very troubling.”

Wolf’s spending plan calls for raising personal income taxes on the top third of earners in the state and redistributing the money to public schools. The $3 billion proposal would help chronically underfunded districts, like Philadelphia and Allentown, repair crumbling school buildings and boost resources for some of the state’s most economically disadvantaged students, he said.

But alongside that plan, Wolf called on the Legislature to standardize tuition rates for cyber charter schools and recalculate their special education funding to “save” districts $229 million. Last week, lawmakers in both chambers announced forthcoming bills that put the governor’s plan into action, as well as a number of transparency measures that gives the state and school districts more insight into how charters spend their money.

Public school leaders say the reforms better align the costs of educating a child with the charter tuition rates they pay and provide some stability as districts plan their budgets. The problem of ballooning tuition payments reached a tipping point last year when more than 25,000 students fled to cyber charter schools amid the pandemic, spiking costs for districts already in dire financial straits. 

But charters say the changes would gut $99 million from funding for their special education students alone. The rest of the “savings,” they said, would cut $130 million from charter schools that serve up to 170,000 students – 70% of which are nonwhite and 65% of which are economically disadvantaged.

“I just get a bit of a sense … we are creating winners and losers,” said Rep. David Zimmeran, R-New Holland. “When you look at a group like special ed, we certainly don’t want to make losers out of a vulnerable group already.”

Democrats on the committee said Monday the proposals begin to reverse years of underfunding from the Republican-controlled Legislature that has left students in poorer, more diverse districts farther and farther behind.

Rep. Peter Schweyer, D-Allentown, said one of the schools in his district was built just after the Civil War and is riddled with toxic substances that make it dangerous for students and staff alike. The governor’s proposals to raise taxes and reform charter school tuition payments would give the district an opportunity to fix the issue, he said.

“This budget actually begins to structurally address underfunding, systematic racism and underfunding of our poorest districts,” he said. “I appreciate this very bold and honest proposal.”

Acting Secretary of Education Noe Ortega said the governor’s proposal doesn’t place a value judgment on charter schools, but rather aims to hold them accountable in the same way the state does for traditional districts.

‘“He [the governor] made it very clear that there’s some [charters] doing really, really good work,” he said. “What this does is holds them accountable to the same standards that we hold all of our schools to, as well as transparency into the funding.”

When Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford, questioned the department over how much it costs, per student, to educate a child in the state, Ortega said there’s no set figure, but rather that it’s “very contextualized.”

“So, I do think that’s a very nuanced and layered answer,” Deputy Secretary Danielle Mariano said.

“Well then it needs to be nuanced and layered when we are discussing issues in terms of charter reform or any other funding that we do and engage in,” Topper said. “It can’t just be something that we assume when letters are sent out saying we don’t fund enough here or we fund too much here.”

Majority Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, closed the daylong hearing by listing unassigned fund balances and pandemic relief disaster aid for some of the state’s largest – and most troubled – districts. He said Philadelphia alone received more than $700 million from the federal government last year and reported a $103 million fund balance. In Pittsburgh and Reading districts, he said, fund balances sit at $155 million and $57 million, respectively.

“I can go on and on, but when you are telling taxpayers they need to pay more in taxes to give more funds? I think when we have discussions about education, there needs to be more candor and transparency about who is getting the dollars,” he said. “Increasing taxes on the people of Pennsylvania in the middle of a pandemic is not the time to be raising taxes 46% to give a 300% increase to a wealthy school district.”

He went on to blame mismanagement – not underfunding – in Philadelphia for the reason it never tackled problems with mold and asbestos in its schools and said he refused to raise taxes “to bail them out.”

“This idea that only public schools can do the job … don’t get me wrong, I’m very proud of my 14 school districts in my county … but we have some real problems in our system,” he said. “To ignore those problems is absolutely horrendous.”

Ortega said throughout the hearing that schools faced an unprecedented level of additional expenses and lost tax revenue related to the pandemic and the $3 billion in one-time federal dollars received helped cover those costs.

“All of them have been required to expend resources in ways there were not required to do so before,” he said

He said that many schools, even those with fund balances, weren’t in a position to weather the pandemic and it’s still unclear the longterm impacts of that on students.

“The infusion of federal dollars has been timely and has been critically important for schools,” he said. “As far as pertaining to what else needs to be invested, we are going to be begin to find exactly out how much has been lost in terms of learning and what we are going to do to address that and that’s going to require some significant investment.”

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