Capitolwire: Lawmakers still wrestling with cyber charter school funding reform
April 16, 2014
By Christen Smith
HARRISBURG (April 14) — A trio of bills working their way through the Legislature take aim at how the state funds cyber charter schools, but which one will end up on the governor’s desk this summer — if any — remains unresolved.
Senate Bill 1085 overhauls the existing funding formula by slicing state pension reimbursements to cyber charter schools in half, while reducing school districts’ payments 30 percent.
The change addresses the “pension double dip” that twice reimburses cyber charter schools — once from the state and once from local taxpayers — up to 150 percent more than what traditional brick-and-mortar schools receive for pension costs. The cuts could save the state $42 million and districts $45 million in the 2014-15 school year.
House Bill 618 tackles the same issue and allows funding deductions for food service costs for cyber charters, saving school districts an estimated $40 million in one year alone.
Both bills eliminate enrollment caps, extend charter renewal terms from five to 10 years, and establish an 18-member Charter School Funding Advisory Commission.
“There’s a lot of good things in HB618 and the Senate version, as it relates to funding,” said Rep. Jim Christiana, R-Beaver, in an interview Thursday. “I don’t believe property taxes should be used to fund cyber schools.”
Christiana introduced House Bill 2174 last week. The bill would scrap the current formula and place the burden of cyber charter school funding in the hands of the state.
Christiana says support for state authorization of all cyber charter schools is strong in both chambers.
“They are really state-wide school districts,” he said. “I’ve not heard from anyone that the Commonwealth shouldn’t be responsible. The obvious hurdle would be the Commonwealth coming up with the necessary revenue, but it absolutely makes sense to cover the costs.”
Pennsylvania Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller said Friday the bill remains under review and did not offer any additional reaction.
“It’s definitely a national trend to have these discussions,” said Alex Medler, vice president of policy and advocacy for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. “The most recent thing I’d point to is the commission in Illinois. They recommended similarly … that full time cyber charters should be authorized by the state and funded by the state and maybe they shouldn’t be charters, but maybe they should be something else.”
Medler said while Illinois has not yet drafted legislation to implement these findings, the push for state funding of cyber charters isn’t Pennsylvania-specific.
“The short answer is, it’s really complicated and it varies from state to state,,” he said. “There are places indeed where the funding for full-time cyber schools is worked out at the state level.”
Meanwhile, lawmakers waffle over HB618 and SB1085 as some advocates cry foul over the proposed reimbursement changes and the Senate version’s “university authorizer” provision, allowing colleges to approve charter schools.
“There is talk of removing the state side of the contribution and leaving the local contribution,” said Steve Robinson, spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Board Association. “We would advocate for the opposite to help save the local taxpayers the additional cost.”
Robinson said PSBA doesn’t support universities “taking the control of the local tax dollars away from the school board and putting it in the hands of a body that has no accountability to taxpayers.”
Robert Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said Tuesday that both bills “underfund real pension costs” for cyber charter schools.
“We oppose (SB) 1085 so long as the current wording is in there which underfunds pension costs for all charters by 20 percent and imposes an additional arbitrary 5 percent cut to all cybers, based on nothing other than perception,” he said. “Our position is to wait for the funding commission, that is in both bills, to complete its work before making funding modifications that can then be based on fact.”
HB618 passed in the House with 133 votes, but hasn’t moved from the Senate Education Committee since October. The Senate has postponed final consideration of SB1085 three times since Jan. 27, and will face a decision on the legislation again on April 28.
“Discussions on charter school reforms remain active and have been productive,” said Erik Arneson, spokesman for the Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, in an email Thursday. “There are a few outstanding issues, but we’re very optimistic everything will be resolved by the end of June.”