Charter Schools Are a Major Dividing Line for the 2020 Democratic Candidates—Education Fights in Pennsylvania Point the Way

By Jeff Bryant, a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm. Produced by Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute

Charter schools have finally broken into the national political dialogue, with presidential candidates in the Democratic Party proclaiming their stances on these schools. But a national debate about charters and “school choice” will be an exercise in empty rhetoric unless the candidates’ views are grounded in the real consequences of how charter schools and school choice affect communities.

Although much of the debate is stuck to a bumper sticker message about the need for families to have a choice to attend charter schools, few if any candidates seem willing to acknowledge providing families with an option to choose charters can come with considerable costs to everyone else in the community.

To understand those costs, consider Pennsylvania, where the costs of charter schools are most blatantly apparent but nevertheless representative of the cost of charters everywhere.

A ‘Perfect Storm’ Crushing the Middle Class

Across the state, charter schools are part of what Dan Doubet tells me is “a perfect storm of economic factors crushing down on middle- and working-class families.” Doubet is executive director of Keystone Progress, a Pennsylvania-based activist group focused on progressive issues and community organizing.

Pennsylvania passed its charter school law in 1997 and now has 179 charter schools enrolling 135,100 students, the sixth highest charter school enrollment in the nation. One in four of these students attends “cyber charters,” statewide schools that operate online.

Although charter schools are promoted to Pennsylvania families as a free option to look outside their neighborhood public schools, the costs of charters are borne by local school districts—and all the taxpayers who support them. Charter schools now cost Pennsylvania taxpayers over $1.8 billion annually and account for over 25 percent of the state’s basic education funding.

Pennsylvania’s surging charter school costs are direct causes of rapidly rising property taxes across the state. When public school students transfer to charters, and per-pupil costs “follow the child,” Doubet explains, the bill for that cost comes due at the end of each budget year when local public schools have to make “tuition payments” to compensate charters for students who transferred. These mostly unplanned, unforeseen costs are often enough to tip district budgets into the red. And the only way to pay off the deficits and right the fiscal ship is to raise local property taxes.

“Everywhere you go you hear complaints about the huge burden that local property taxes have become,” Doubet says. “It’s tough for middle- and working-class families to come up with the money when their wages have stagnated for decades. And retirees on fixed incomes are especially hard hit.”

Public Schools Are at Risk

Recent reports by the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) seem to back up Doubet’s observations about the increasing financial burden posed by charter schools.

A recent PASBO report finds, “Charter school tuition is one of the largest areas of mandated cost growth for school districts.” With the current cost of charter growth at 10 percent annually, PASBO calculates at least $0.37 of every new dollar raised in property taxes in 2017-2018 went directly to charters. That figure will likely grow, the study says, and school districts will continue to see the costs of charters gobble up larger chunks of their basic education funding.

Because the state does virtually nothing to help alleviate these costs, school districts are forced to turn to property taxes. Another PASBO analysis, based on a survey of district superintendents in the state, finds more than one-third face a worsening financial picture in their districts—and they blame charter schools.

“With the state providing no state support for mandatory charter school tuition costs,” the study says, “the increases in this single budget item have the potential to decimate school district budgets.” To stave off the decimation, “school districts shifted resources from other areas of the budget, cut programs, and raised property taxes to cover the difference” created by rising charter school costs.

Another report, a 2017 study by the state’s Legislative Budget and Finance Committee, found that 51 districts now have “significant charter enrollment,” which the study determined is over 5 percent of student population in the district enrolled in charter schools. Of those districts, 40 percent were facing fiscal challenges, and over half of those districts requested and received approval to raise their school real estate taxes.

The financial strain is caused by Pennsylvania’s formula for funding charter schools, which is unique to the state but has, at its heart, a principle all charter funding methods share.

A Charter School Funding ‘Dumpster Fire’

“The Pennsylvania charter funding formula is a dumpster fire,” Mark Weber tells me. “If you paid me to design a funding system that advantaged charter schools over public school districts—but did so in a way that the advantage was hidden in technical details—I’d probably come up with something that looks a lot like it.”

Weber is a public school music teacher in New Jersey and a recent doctoral graduate in education policy from Rutgers University. His popular “Jersey Jazzman” blog is a highly authoritative source for education policy analysis and commentary.

Some flaws Weber finds in Pennsylvania’s charter funding formula are peculiar to the state but indicative of how easy it is for school choice systems to surreptitiously burden public schools with increased financial costs.

First, charter school tuition charged to Pennsylvania public schools is calculated as if charters had to provide the same services public schools have to provide, such as transportation—they don’t. Also, the tuition bill public schools pay to charters is calculated as if every student cost the same to educate—they don’t.

“The formula is set up so there’s no change in funding if a charter takes proportionally fewer nonnative English-speaking students than the district educates,” Weber explains. “Same with economically disadvantaged students. This reality alone is enough to create huge problems with funding disparities.”

This one-size-fits-all way to account for per-pupil costs also doesn’t consider other variances in student costs not named in law, Weber explains—say for instance, the cost differences in educating elementary versus secondary students. Nor is there any accounting for less visible costs school districts pay for services such as collecting taxes, hosting community activities in school facilities, and holding athletic events and music and theater performances.

Per-pupil costs for special education students in the charter tuition formula are also calculated artificially low for public schools and artificially high for charters, Weber explains, so that charters are “overpaid” for each special education student they enroll, especially when those students have less profound disabilities. (Part of the “flexibility” charters get is the option to tell parentstheir children may not get the type of special attention they need for certain disabilities.)

The whole funding method for charter schools is made more disastrous when the charter operates exclusively or mostly online. “Cyber charters obviously have much smaller costs than public district schools,” Weber notes, “no facilities, much fewer staff, etc. Yet there is no mechanism to adjust for this difference in Pennsylvania’s funding law.”

But much of Pennsylvania’s flawed charter school method, Weber explains, is a problem that plagues charter school funding formulas everywhere and potentially can increase education costs for taxpayers across the board.

The belief that charter schools can be fully funded simply by letting a per-pupil cost follow the child from the public school to the charter is problematic, he argues. “Districts have fixed costs that cannot easily be cut as enrollment declines due to charter growth,” he explains, and taxpayers have to come up with more money to account for the rise in inefficiencies as public schools lose their economies of scale.

Numerous studies, including one authored by Weber, have shown that when a public school loses a percentage of students to charter schools or a voucher program, the public schools have “stranded costs” and can’t be reduced by an equivalent percent. Pennsylvania school leaders complain that even by year five after students have moved from public schools to charters, districts are only able to recoup between 44 and 68 percent of the cost of charter tuition for each student who left. Reports on the impact of charter schools in other states have found similar costs remaining behind long after students leave public schools for charters.

Indeed, the very idea of charter schools—that by law, they are exempt from many of the requirements public schools must adhere to—ensures “charter ‘cost’ is not the same as district ‘cost,’” Weber concludes. “Yet funding mechanisms for charter schools often assume they are.”

Paying for What?

If charter schools guaranteed some kind of education premium—a significant boost in test scores or other measure of academic achievement—then perhaps that could justify the extra costs public schools incur to provide some parents a choice. But in Pennsylvania, that’s hardly the case.

According to a recent study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, charter school students in Pennsylvania, when compared with their counterparts in traditional public schools, make similar progress on reading exams but fare worse in math. The study also found significant variation in performance within the charter industry—with cyber charters performing especially poorly and urban brick-and-mortar charters perhaps providing some academic benefits to African American and Hispanic students.

Although the study relies on a somewhat questionable methodology, it reflects previous research that also found charter schools in the state generally score much lower on academic benchmarks than public schools do.

Certainly, the rise in charter school costs is not the only factor causing financial strain for Pennsylvania schools. Education funding in the Quaker State is already grossly inadequate and inequitable. Rising employee pensions and special education costs are also factors.

But public schools’ obligations to pay for special education are a matter of federal law, and their obligations to pay for pensions stem from contracts that are also enforceable by law. But obligations to pay for charter schools are a matter of state mandate that can be ended or modified at any time.

Certainly, other states do a better job of funding charter schools than Pennsylvania does. Most states pick up much more of the costs of charters and don’t place the burden solely on local taxpayers, as Pennsylvania does. But when the state pays the tab, that money has to come from taxpayers as well, either by increasing income or sales taxes, or by some other method.

And what’s unalterably true about charter schools everywhere is that their funding derives from the flawed belief that they can be paid for simply by taking money away from local public schools.

“Charters are redundant systems of school organization,” says Weber. “Redundancy increases costs because it is a less efficient use of resources. You can argue that the cost of ‘choice’ is worth it, and that’s fine. But you can’t credibly argue that there isn’t a cost. We have too much evidence that there is.”

Few politicians seem to understand this reality, and political discourse has yet to catch up to debates over rising costs associated with school choice in local communities where charters are now a large presence.

In states like Pennsylvania, the upward spiraling costs are now fueling “a growing resistance to charters as any kind of answer to education problems,” Doubet says. “People are catching on that inserting a private middleman into public services doesn’t diminish the costs of government.”

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  1. KLG

    A charter elementary school opened to great fanfare around the corner from my house three years ago. It lasted less than two years due to mismanagement of their educational programs and our local property taxes devoted to the school, with a forced closing in the middle of its second school year. But the damage is done, and a nice new, unneeded building sits empty and decays. Any Democrat running who is not totally opposed to the charter school scam should lose…Ha! Trump 2020 looks to improve on Trump 2016. But Clinton Obama Pelosi & Schumer LLC will remain standing. Which is the point.

  2. Matthew G. Saroff

    The phrase, “With cyber charters performing especially poorly,” is a gross understatement.

    Those schools are a disaster in terms of performance, but that is fine for the charter operators, because the profit margins are so high. **ca-ching**

    1. lyman alpha blob

      “Cyber charters” is one of the absolute stupidest ideas neoliberalism has come up with, unless of course the goal is to rake in profits for yourself while doing next to nothing. No idea why any parent in their right mind would enroll their kid in one – my guess is the religious fundamentalists who home school use them more than anyone, but that is pure conjecture on my part.

      Their motto ought to be “Cyber charters – schools where you can virtually rather than actually learn.”

  3. Joe Well

    I am surprised that an article with the words “Charter Schools” and “Democratic Candidates” in the title does not mention the names of any candidates.

    Here’s an important name: Elizabeth Warren.

    She appears to be a covert charter school supporter. She has only criticized “for-profit” charter schools which represent only 12% of charter schools. She has not come out in favor of a nationwide moratorium on new charter schools.

    There was recently a media furor when she was presented at an event in Oakland by a former charter school teacher which probably went over the top, but the underlying reality is that she has not called for a moratorium on charter schools.

    Of course, worse could be said about Joe Biden or Kamala Harris.

    But for anyone who says that Warren is just about the same as Sanders on policy, here is an important point of difference.

  4. Otis B Driftwood

    The dodge in California works a bit different. Here, funding is based on the number of students enrolled in the first month of the school year. Guess what the charters do? They enroll as many kids as they can, then drop kids from the rolls as soon as the funding date passes. These discarded children must then be taken into a public system. Basically, theft of public money by the private operators of the charter school.

  5. Tomonthebeach

    I went to parocial schools 1-12. My HS was not unlike Georgetown Prep except that we had high standards for personal behavior and community volunteer participation (ref the Kavanaugh hearings :-). We also had a very-educated faculty. Retired, the data are thus in. Of my 128 classmates roughly half hold graduate degrees, a quarter hold doctorates, nearly all have baccalaureates. We were not elite going in, but we surely were coming out – the goal of charter schools.

    Such results do not require an economics degree to demonstrate that private school are worth the investment. However, charter schools are NOT private schools except by stretch of the definition. Nevertheless, they are marketed to a naive public as being elite educational institutions that will make their kids competitive for Harvard. That is simply nonsense.

    Voters should ask if money they are squandering on more costly public school options might have been put to better use paying teachers more so districts can attract the same caliber of teachers truly-elite high schools hire.

  6. Big Tap

    I live in Pennsylvania and property taxes are ridiculously high where I live. We always hear from politicians that the main cause for high taxes are teacher salaries (never school administrators), and the school/state pension system which is said to be too generous. I didn’t know that charter schools are a contributing factor regarding taxes. I would prefer if the state just raised the state sales tax and eliminated the school district property tax altogether. I hear that’s what Michigan did. The fact that my school district is against this idea makes it more appealing.

  7. anarcheopteryx

    Similar to the movement to call anti-abortion types “anti-choice”, I would like to propose calling charter schools “publically-funded private schools” in order to change the narrative here. I know it’s less catchy, but people need to realize they aren’t some magically new revolutionary thing in education, they’re just (largely, bad) private schools that have convinced the government to pay for them. In the same way that Uber is an unlicensed taxi operation.

    By the way, I hope this is the tipping point that makes Americans realize they can’t keep funding education purely from property taxes.

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