Charter schools siphon public funds
by Jenn Kight
As charter schools grow in popularity in the State College Area School District, they are draining more and more money from public coffers.
The school district will lose about $2.2 million on charter schools this year, according to SCASD Business Administrator Dennis Younkin. And that number is expected to rise.
Tuition—at about $12,000 per pupil—is the same for all students not in special-education programs, regardless of the school they attend. But when a student transfers from a traditional public school to a charter school, she takes most of that $12,000 with her.
Meanwhile, many costs at the public school remain. The electric company, the cafeteria staff and the student’s former teacher must still be paid.
Forced to reimburse the charter school and fill the financial hole at the public school, the school district ends up paying nearly double, according to State College Area school board member Gowen Roper.
"Its not that we can reduce the number of classes we have or the number of teachers we have," Roper said. "We can't reduce anything, because it's not like 24 students from any one class go to a charter school."
The school district will spend about $2.9 million on charter schools this year. A quarter of that will be reimbursed by the state, leaving about $2.2 million to be paid by the school district, which has a total budget of approximately $101 million. Younkin told Voices that he considers the $2.2 million lost money.
Of the approximately 7,100 students in the school district, 271 attend charter schools. Local brick-and-mortar charter schools enroll 240 students, and the other 31 are in cyber charter schools.
SCASD Superintendent Patricia Best said charter schools raise—but don’t necessarily double—costs.
The real problem, Best said, is that legislators claimed charter schools would lower school district costs, but the opposite occurred.
Roper echoed Best’s concerns, explaining that the state charges school districts with the responsibility of funding charter schools but only gives them money to pay for a portion of the charter school costs.
"The longstanding issue is that this is an unfunded mandate by the state," Roper said.
In Stage College, charter school costs have almost doubled since 2004, when the state began paying the 25 percent reimbursement. The school district is spending about six times more on charter schools now than when they were introduced a decade ago.
More than 6 percent of the approximately $5 million expected increase in the overall budget for fiscal year 2009 is attributed to rising charter school costs.
Carolyn Maroncelli, CEO of Nittany Valley Charter School, acknowledged that charter schools may cost the school district a bit more.
"That’s a concern of the district, and that is legitimate," said Maroncelli, noting that the public school saves some money on materials when a student transfers to a charter school. But she said cost shouldn’t be the only issue.
"It isn't money-saving," she said. "But these are tax dollars, and (parents) are entitled to a choice, and this is the choice they make."
Maroncelli said charter schools actually receive fewer funds than traditional public schools.
"The district figures per-pupil cost, and we get less than 80 percent of that," Maroncelli said. "We lave less money, less than the traditional schools."
But she acknowledged that some of the other 20 percent is used to cover districtwide costs for things like transportation and Community Education, to which the charter schools have access.
Younkin said some of the 20 percent deduction covers programs that directly benefit the charter schools, such as student transportation services, while some of the money is of no direct benefit to charters, instead going to the school district’s debt service and facility maintenance at the traditional public schools.
Bulent Tarman, principal and CEO of Young Scholars of Central Pennsylvania Charter School, said that while he doesn't want to suggest that either Best or Younkin is wrong, interpretation of the funding is dependent on one’s perspective.
It is an advantage to the district for charter schools to be operating on 80 percent funding, Tarman said. He noted that none of the state reimbursement money gets passed on to the charter schools.
In a follow-up e-mail, Tarman wrote that the district’s unreimbursed charter school costs are not a loss for the community, but rather a gain. He pointed out that spending on charter schools will account for less than 2.5 percent of the budget next year.
"Look at what our students are getting in return for that amount," Tarman wrote.
As suspicions of charter schools persist, Tarman proposed a meeting between charter school leaders and community members to clear up any remaining questions about funding.
"For people who question the charter schools, the best answer for them is to say what parents are getting in return," Tarman said. "Having an alternative to the system is very important."
Best said that a possible solution to the funding issue would be to create a funding stream unique to the charter schools, so they wouldn't have to go through the local school district.
"We think parents should have a choice," Best said, "but what we're finding difficult is the cost we're paying for choice."