As the new year begins, legislators in Harrisburg are still talking about reforming state laws affecting charter schools in the Commonwealth. Complicating the discussions are many misconceptions about charter schools, how they operate, how well they perform, and how they are funded.
The most-significant misconception is the belief that charter schools are either
"brick-and-mortar" schools or "cyber" schools and that cyber schools have
significantly lower costs. To hear legislators and lobbyists talk about them, one would think that there is nothing between these two extremes. In reality, cyber schools have added performing arts centers, mobile science labs, learning centers and other hybrid programs that necessitate buildings and other significant assets above and beyond what is needed for IT and administration. Some charter schools allow their students to attend technical schools just like the students at their resident school districts.
In these cases, the charter schools must use some or all of the per-pupil funds
they receive from the student’s resident school district to pay the technical school tuition.
The next-most-significant misconception is the belief that cyber charter schools
receive the same funding as brick-and-mortar charter schools. This is not true.
All charter schools receive a payment from students’ resident school districts
equal to the districts’ per-pupil spending less what the districts spend in certain categories, including buildings, facilities, and financing. The brick and mortar charter schools may then be eligible to receive a reimbursement directly from the state to cover a portion of their costs for buildings and facilities. Cyber schools are not eligible for these payments because, as implied above, it is assumed that they don’t have buildings. So, the cost for a cyber school’s facilities must be taken from other budget categories.
The biggest disagreement that stems from these two misconceptions is a consistent call to reduce funding to all cyber charter schools on a mistaken belief that they all receive more money than they need. The cost to educate a child in a cyber charter school depends upon what services are offered by each school. Arbitrarily cutting funding to all cyber charter schools will hurt the ones that are going above and beyond the pure "cyber" model and going above and beyond that model is something that we should encourage. Cutting funding to cyber schools will discourage innovation, making it financially impossible for some to serve as educational laboratories, as originally intended.
Another significant misconception about charter schools concerns how they perform compared to other schools. Charter school opponents will cite test scores to support claims that charter schools do not perform as well as other schools. (Ironically, these same folks would be quick to say that it is unfair to pay an educator based upon student performance.) However, these comparisons are based on apples-to-oranges comparisons. For example, it is unreasonable to compare a state-wide cyber charter school’s test results to state-wide test results for all schools since a disproportionate number of the students in a cyber school may come from school districts that do not perform well. So, if 70% of a cyber charter school’s students come from a particular
school district, that school district’s performance should be weighted to account for 70% of any benchmark used to judge that cyber charter school. Of course, anyone who knows families who send their children to charter schools knows that such extensive statistical analysis is unnecessary.
In the end, charter schools face the ultimate performance test: competition. If
a charter school fails to outperform a child’s resident school district by whatever measure the child’s parent deems most important, that parent will send their child back to a local, traditional public school. Yet, there are tens of thousands of children on waiting lists across Pennsylvania, hoping for the opportunity to attend a charter school. In economic terms, the demand for charter schools far exceeds the supply, suggesting that most are passing the most important performance test of all – the parent satisfaction test.
Any legislation to reform Pennsylvania’s charter school laws should expand school choice while providing each school with equal funding to enable the innovations that will make all schools better. Once the supply of charter schools meets the demand, all schools, including charter schools, will be under pressure to improve or be shut down. Only then can we hope to reap the full benefits of school choice and competition in education.
Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania (CAP) is a non-profit organization founded to
raise the standard of living of all Pennsylvanians by restoring limited government,economic freedom, and personal responsibility. By empowering the Commonwealth’s employers and taxpayers to break state government’s "Iron Triangle" of career politicians, bureaucrats, and Big Government lobbyists, this restoration will occur and Pennsylvania will prosper.