SOUDERTON — Proposals backed by school districts across the state and Gov. Tom Wolf to reform charter school funding would unfairly cut the funding going to the charter schools, the CEO of the largest organization advocating for Pennsylvania charter schools said during a May 26 visit to Souderton Charter School Collaborative.
"First and foremost, this is not the time to cut funding for any public school within the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Charter schools are public schools," said Lenny McAllister, Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools CEO.
School districts pay tuition to the charter schools students from the district attend, currently based on the amount the sending district spends per student in the district. The proposed changes would set a standard fee statewide at less than is now paid. One of the particularly troubling aspects of the proposal is that the amount paid charter schools for special education students would decrease, affecting some of the most vulnerable students, McAllister said.
Suppporters of the changes say the move would save money and that the current funding formula is unfair, particularly in how much it pays to cyber charter schools, which do not have the expenses of traditional brick and mortar schools.
Souderton Charter School Collaborative is a brick and mortar school serving students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
School districts have said they showed when they started their own online programs during the pandemic that the costs for the cyber schools are less.
There's a difference, though, between taking existing staff and having them teach online for district students and providing online education for students who may live a distance from the cyber school and need additional services, McAllister said.l
"Cyber charter schools have to think about everything from enrollment to classroom size, synchronous versus asynchronous, who can handle that type of education, how do you track who's on line, how do you track performance, and then still provide an actual school experience, not some place you log into," he said.
School districts are getting additional money to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and asking for additional educational funding while at the same time saying the charter school funding should be cut, McAllister said.
"During the pandemic, parents have had choice. They have chosen to either stay home and learn virtually or come in for in person or hybrid learning," said Jennifer Arevalo, SCSC's CEO and director of organizational development.
"It doesn't seem like many districts want parents to also have a choice to choose a charter," she said.
"When you start talking about education, the only guarantee for self determination for any parent to be empowered to put their kids in the best possible scenario throughout America are the choice of public charter schools," McAllister said, "Without that, you are limiting the opportunities for roughly 170,000 kids in Pennsylvania this year."
The effects could be far-reaching, he said.
"If we're going to bolster Pennsylvania as a place where people can live, learn, work, play and retire, we have to ensure that school choice is an option that is a fundamental right as afforded by the charter law, not something that's seen as being a problem on the periphery that school districts get to complain about every year," McAllister said.
In December of 2019, the Souderton Area School Board gave conditional approval to SCSC for another five years, with the conditions related to teacher certifications and health insurance. The school appealed the conditions to the state Charter Appeals Board.
Since then, Wolf effectively disbanded the CAB by removing the board members, all of whose terms had expired, McAllister and Paul Hunter, SCSC's director of education, said.
The Souderton appeal is one of several that remain unresolved, Hunter said.
Statewide, there are thousands of educators affected by the unresolved appeals, which could have a large impact on jobs, he said.
"You work to keep people employed, to keep people in their craft and changing lives, and what we have is the governor has taken that option away without a solution and now we're in limbo," Hunter said of the disbanded CAB, "and that's no way to operate and it's no way to operate for kids, that's the bottom line."
Charter schools are treated as a secondary class of education, Arevalo said.
"We are always begging to be recognized and that's not what charter school law was about. Charter school law was about innovation, how do we create change," she said, "and I'm proud to say this school is about change. We've been here for 20 years and we're about what's right for kids and what's next. That's where our people are focused."
An informal survey of families with students in SCSC found that 25 percent of the families moved into Souderton Area School District to increase the chances of getting into SCSC, she said.
"People come to us and they're not running away from something. They're running towards something," Arevalo said.
"Let's get back to collaboration between school districts and charter schools, rather than constantly fighting and having it play out not only in the media, but also in front of vulnerable children that are caught in the crossfire," McAllister said.