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The time has come for charter school reform in Pa.

Some of the biggest problems schools have today are with charter schools — the soaring costs, lack of fiscal transparency, and chronic academic weakness.

From 2017 to 2021, the Bellefonte Area School District has spent $13 million on charter school tuition.

Unfortunately, a collective cry for reform has fallen on legislators’ deaf ears.

Remarkably, more than 400 of the 500 Pennsylvania school districts have passed resolutions pleading for change.

In an unprecedented show of unity, 99 of 99 local school board members from 11 districts and their accompanying superintendents doubled down this February and passed a resolution stating: Charter school reform is long overdue and the time to do something is now.

To clarify, every school district in Pennsylvania is required to make tuition payments to charter schools, brick and mortar and cyber, for all students that enroll in one of these school choices.

Witnessed over the years is a staggering misuse of tax dollars, specifically funds sent to cyber charter schools. The phrase used for simplification is, the money should follow the student. Indeed that sounds fair. Although the money does follow the student, the laws, standards, and transparency do not. Because of outdated laws, charters are permitted to play by a different set of rules, or no rules whatsoever, and take tuition payments regardless of the cost of an education.

Outlined in a Pennsylvania School Board Association bi-partisan report titled “Recommendations for Meaningful Charter School Reform” these are some of the proposed solutions:

5 Tuition rate for special education students should reflect actual cost. Charters receive as much as $32,000 to educate one special education child, regardless of the level of need and in-person versus virtual. This explains why charters headhunt students with IEPs.

5 Cyber charters should receive a flat $9,500 tuition rate per child. Currently, cyber charters receive the same tuition as brick and mortar schools, despite not having physical buildings, athletics, utilities, etc.

5 Charter schools must make their academic performance transparent and create a plan for improvement. All 12 cyber charters have earned a needs improvement rating, some with a graduation rate of 55 percent and a 19 percent lower performance at every level, on mandated tests.

5 Charter school trustees must comply with state ethics requirements and conflicts of interest safeguards. Traditional school boards are elected, and financial statements are required. Conversely, charter boards have trustees who are appointed internally, without financial transparency. Some trustees receive payment for their service.

5 Educational management companies hired by charter schools must make its financial information transparent. These outsourced management companies are not always subject to annual audits and are profiting at alarming rates.

Let’s take a look at budgetary numbers from the Bellefonte Area School District as a case in point.

BASD offers its own cyber option for an internal cost of about $4,000 per student, including regular and special education.

However, the current charter school law requires the district to pay $13,743 for one regular education student and $29,555 for one special education student for the same service.

What happens to the excess money? Advertising at an annual cost of $1,200 per student, massive fund balances exceeding 50 percent ,and profits to management companies, all uncovered through Right to Know requests.

Please understand that districts are not looking to deny students their right to educational choice. There are good charter schools, especially the brick and mortar ones from our area.

We want them to remain a permanent part of our public education landscape.

As a former teacher, I can attest to the truth that some students benefit from educational choice.

We are asking that the dollars intended for education be properly and responsibly spent, and that our students receive a quality education.

Pennsylvania is known nationally as having the worst charter school laws in the country, practically unchanged since their inception in 1997.

Academic and financial costs are far reaching and dire. Join me in asking our elected officials to finally make charter school reform a legislative priority.

Donna Smith is a member of the Bellefonte Area School Board and is the board’s legislative liasion.

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