Pa. lawmakers continue to debate over ‘meaningful’ charter reform

By: - June 17, 2021 11:41 am

The prime sponsor of an “educational choice” bill called the legislation the “beginning of a conversation.” But even with recent changes, critics say it’s a far cry from meaningful reform.

The legislation sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairman Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, would expand the state cap on tax credits for businesses that fund private and religious school scholarships. 

An amended bill cleared Martin’s committee on Tuesday on a party-line vote of 7-4, with the panel’s Democrats protesting the amount for cyber charter school payments. The change established a flat-tiered reduction to cyber school tuition payments and removed language establishing a separate public charter school commission charged with authorizing public charter schools.

“I think some savings is better than none; I think it is nowhere near what we need to do in terms of funding reform for our school districts,” Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-Allegheny, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said.

Charter school reform has been an ongoing debate in Harrisburg; Gov. Tom Wolf and state Democrats have pushed for a fair funding formula to distribute money to schools with updated data — not population numbers from the early 1990s.

With a legacy at stake, Gov. Tom Wolf pushes for fair school funding

Williams, who supported the amendment, but opposed Martin’s bill in committee, suggested using a statewide charter tuition rate. This idea is outlined in another piece of legislation, sponsored by Williams, which sets a $9,457.59 per-student statewide cyber charter school tuition rate.

The number, Williams said, was calculated based on the top five highest-performing cyber-charter schools and the average cost of education.

“It is based on actual costs,” she said. “That way, only the actual cost for educating those students is taken from their home school district.”

Educators in traditional school programs across the state have asked lawmakers for a funding model that reflects the facilities and services available to students in charter programs. This month, administrators and teachers unions in all Lancaster County’s 16 school districts sent Martin a letter voicing opposition to the bill, LancasterOnline reported.

A statewide single enrollment rate, Martin said, could result in a reduction in funds which could ultimately hurt schools and student resources. He added that enrollment could change as schools reopen under lifted COVID-19 restrictions.

In a response to the letter, Martin said that equating increases with tax credit allowances to that of basic education funding wouldn’t be appropriate because schools recruit and locate businesses to participate.

When Martin’s bill was voted out of committee earlier this month, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, opposed the legislation — saying that it would take millions of dollars in taxpayer money out of public schools. 

Students flocked to cyber-charter schools this year. So did district revenue and federal relief funds

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association also sent a letter to committee members that asked for a negative vote on the proposal. 

Tuesday’s amendment, however, received some support.

“We’re happy that the Senate Education Committee members voted today to remove language that would have taken authority to approve charter schools from local boards and added an amendment to reduce school district payments to cyber charter schools,” PSEA President Rich Askey said in a statement.

But Askey added that the bill would “barely put a dent” in what school districts pay charter and cyber schools, adding that it amounts to about 25 cents on the dollar of cyber charter tuition reductions under Wolf’s proposal.

Chris Lilienthal, a PSEA spokesperson, told the Capital-Star that Martin’s bill would result in a growth in annual spending for the educational improvement and opportunity scholarship tax credit programs. He estimated a $1 billion growth in five years and $3 billion in 10 years.

“We believe that providing billions of taxpayer dollars to private and religious schools over the next decade through these corporate tax break programs will inevitably come at the expense of state funding for public schools,” Lilienthal said. “Unless there is some plan we’re not aware of to pay for these steep increases.”

Sen. Tim Kearney, D-Delaware, announced plans this week for legislation that would require schools and scholarship organizations to be more accountable by prohibiting them from keeping 20 percent of each dollar that passes through for administrative costs. His bill would lower the set-aside to 5 percent for scholarship organizations that participate in the state tax credit programs.

“This will provide up to an additional $36 million in scholarships for students without an increase in any taxpayer aid,” he wrote in a ‘Dear Colleague’ memo seeking support for the proposal. “This means less taxpayer money is used for the benefit of private organizations and more funding is provided to students in need as is the purpose of this program.

Kearney’s bill would let the Department of Community and Economic Development track how students who utilize the scholarship programs are doing and give the department authority to add any additional reporting requirements in the future.

“This is consistent with other tax credit programs where the agency can add reporting requirements at any time,” he wrote.

The Senate has yet to vote on Martin’s bill, but it could reach the floor next week. 

Even with the amendment, Wolf still opposes the plan, but a spokesperson for the governor said the administration “stands ready” to negotiate a “serious reform bill that would improve educational quality, increase transparency, and contain taxpayer costs.”

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