By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — The legislative quagmire that is Pennsylvania’s charter school funding formula once again went unaddressed this legislative session.
That means the state and school districts will continue giving excess pension contributions for charter and cyber charters schools.
It’s one of several fiscal realities that has school district advocates, and some lawmakers, calling for funding formula reform.
Public school districts fund charters through a by-district tuition rate, which includes calculations for pension contributions. On top of that, charters are eligible for pension contribution reimbursements from the state at the same rate school districts receive. These contributions make up the largest chunk of money that the state gives directly to charters.
Larry Jones, president of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said charter school advocates acknowledge that the funding formula is “not perfect on both sides of things.” Charters, for example, don’t have the same bond provisions as school districts, he said.
Addressing the pension issue should couple with a greater discussion about the funding formula in general, Jones said. Reforming specific issues, like retirement contributions, can create more inequalities.
“We haven’t had a holistic conversation,” he said. “What we’ve had is conversations that say, ‘Let’s address the PSERS (Public School Employees Retirement System) reimbursement issue,’ and then that issue is looked it and that issue is discussed and then people are put into a corner.”
In the current economy, charter school funding is under the microscope more than it used to be, Jones said. At the same time, 44,000 students are on a waiting list to enroll in one of around 150 charters statewide.
Steve Robinson, director of public relations for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said districts would like to see pension contributions removed from the tuition rate formula.
Doing so could save $500 million by the 2016-2017 school year, he said.
He calls a remedy a “no-brainer.”
“Any effort to correct funding flaws, any effort to get the tuition payments to be more fair and equitable certainly is going to help districts out, because they won’t be overpaying for what they should be for the charter costs,” Robinson said.
Per-student tuition payments from school districts are based on the cost it takes to educate a student in the district, which could range from $6,700 in Schuykill County to $16,900 in Montgomery County, according to data from the Auditor General’s Office.
And these costs rise in connection with increases in pension costs.
The other side of the double contribution — the state’s reimbursements for employee benefits to charter schools — is calculated the same way as it is for school districts, said Tim Eller, spokesman for the Department of Education. The contribution applies to a portion of their pension costs for PSERS.
Multiple charter school operation and reform concepts didn’t come to pass during the last session, at least one of which would’ve addressed the double-contribution issue by establishing a different method for calculating tuition rates.
Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, said the battles over charter school funding are widely stratified, killing the opportunity for compromise.
“It’s turned into a lot of everybody wants to win without giving a little or trying to be reasonable about it,” he said. “This has been debated since the early 2000s. Every time it blows up.”
But pressure to reform how the state and school districts fund charter schools is still on when freshly elected lawmakers take their seats in January.
After the Legislature wrapped up voting sessions this fall, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, said some House lawmakers did not support a popular charter reform measure, Senate Bill 1115, this past session, because it didn’t do enough to address funding issues. Among a number of transparency and reporting reforms, the legislation would’ve created a commission to study the funding formula for charter schools.
That was not enough to satisfy lawmakers who wanted the funding issues addressed, Turzai said.
“I do think there was a lot of discussion about it, there has to be a discussion as to a formula for how you fund cyber charters and it’s really be an issue that continues to be raised,” Turzai said.