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Education: Charter schools causing hardship for city schools

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The Pittsburgh school district is facing a budget deficit of more than $13 million next year, and school officials say that charter schools -- independently operated schools the district must help fund -- are a big reason why.

While there are many factors governing the budget -- salary and benefits costs comprise nearly half of the district's total yearly expenditures -- district Chief Financial Officer Chris Berdnik says the state's system for funding charter schools is unfair, since city districts like Pittsburgh have a higher per-pupil cost than other districts in Pennsylvania.

"It would be like Pittsburgh having to pay more per pencil than a school in Bedford County," whose districts have much lower tuition rates, he says. "It's really kind of wild. Charter schools benefit more from receiving students from schools with higher tuition rates."

Pittsburgh currently spends more than $12,000 for each student who leaves the district for a charter school. McKeesport Area School District, on the other hand, pays less than $8,000 per student. Since students from one district can go to a charter school in a different district, kids from Pittsburgh and McKeesport may be getting the exact same education while their home districts are paying drastically different prices for it.

Pittsburgh's charter-school problem has become more pressing in the past year due to increasing costs and the opening of a new charter school. According to the district's 2009 budget, charter-school costs have jumped nearly 30 percent -- or more than $8 million -- from 2008. Berdnik says the spike is due in part to Pittsburgh's newest charter school, The Environmental Charter School at Frick Park, which opened at the start of this school year. Yearly rate increases are also to blame for the rising costs.

Pennsylvania legalized charter schools in 1997. Since then, more than 100 have opened across the state, serving nearly 50,000 students. To date, the Pittsburgh Public Schools have lost more than 2,300 students to 24 different charter schools -- seven of which are within the city; eight of which are outside the city; and nine of which are cyber charter schools, Internet schools approved by the state where students complete their work and communicate with teachers online.

Charter schools -- independently operated schools open to students at no charge --offer students educational opportunities they can't receive in a traditional public school. For example, East Liberty's Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School focuses on math and science, integrated with computer technology.

By law, the state is required to reimburse up to 30 percent of a district's charter-school costs. But the state is currently reimbursing Pittsburgh for only about 24 percent of its charter costs. And Berdnik says it's highly unlikely that the state will increase the reimbursement any time soon, given the current economic downturn. "That's a non-winner out of the gate," he says.

But, Berdnik asks, "How would you calculate a more appropriate, stable [tuition] rate for all schools in a region?" Having Pittsburgh pay the same amount for its charter students as other schools in Southwestern Pennsylvania "would definitely be an improvement," he says.

In one area, at least, Berdnik may get his wish.

Legislation that would create a statewide flat rate for cyber-school tuition has been floating around the House for nearly two years. The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) supports the bill, which would calculate roughly how much it costs to run a cyber charter school. That way, every school could pay the same rate.

"Cyber charters cost a whole lot less to run than regular brick-and-mortar [charter] schools," says PDE spokesperson Leah Harris. "They don't need the same staff time or transportation, or the same type of facilities and upkeep."

The bill's author, Rep. Karen Beyer (R-Lehigh), could not be reached for comment by press time, but she told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in June that the new rates could save the state $18.5 million and Pittsburgh Public Schools $2.3 million a year.

"Anything that would reduce our costs would help considerably," says Pete Camarda, the district's executive director of budget development and management services. "But who knows what's going to pass."

In fact, the bill has been idling in committee, without a floor vote, for nearly two years. If it's revived and eventually passed, charter-school advocates worry it could really strap charters' finances.

"One flat rate would probably not serve [charter schools] well," says William Tomasco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Charter Schools.

Tomasco, a former charter-school principal, says it's "not easy" to get grants and corporate donations to replace tuition money from students' home districts. "It's an iffy thing," he says.

Sarah McCluan, spokesperson for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit (AIU) -- a nonprofit branch of the PDE which provides education services for the county's 42 suburban schools and runs cyber charter school PA LEARNERS ONLINE (PALO) -- says the cyber charter legislation's goal "is very logical." But, she adds, "We can see both sides of the argument."

Because PALO's board of directors is composed of superintendents from schools in Allegheny County, McCluan says, "[The AIU] is in an interesting position." On the one hand, they're upset at the financial burden cyber charters cost school districts, but on the other hand, they realize that cyber charter schools need funding to stay alive.

McCluan cautions that decreased funding for cyber schools could be problematic for the online programs. "Cyber schools don't have a tax base to draw off of," she says. "Cyber schools can't raise taxes."

McCluan says she's unsure whether or not the bill will eventually pass, but she knows why the cyber charter costs are becoming such a serious concern for districts.

"It's a matter of finances," she says. "[District officials] are looking at their budgets and saying, 'Holy cow! We're paying this much?'"

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