Thousands of Pennsylvania families have decided to eliminate the uncertainty about school schedules, stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, by enrolling their children in online public charter schools.
That, in turn, has heightened the funding crisis for public school districts, which must pay tuition to charters for each resident charter-enrolled student. According to the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, that tuition for the 2020-2021 school year will be $475 million higher than it was for 2019-2020. The increase for the 37 school districts in Lackawanna, Luzerne, Monroe, Pike, Susquehanna, Wayne and Wyoming counties will be $36.2 million.
School districts face local tax revenue shortfalls due to the COVID-caused economic slowdown.
And the Trump administration recently underscored its hostility to public education by rejecting Pennsylvania’s request to use $300 million in federal recovery money to help stabilize school districts. Every year, the state transfers to local school districts a portion of the tax it collects on casino gambling. In 2019-2020, it distributed $621 million to the 500 school districts. Because casinos were closed during the early stages of the pandemic, that revenue will be reduced by about $300 million.
The Trump administration’s decision means that the $300 million must be added to the $475 million in increased charter tuition — all of which will have to come from local property taxes.
The state Legislature, which earlier had passed a budget to get the state government through Nov. 30, reconvened this week to craft a budget through the fiscal year, which ends June 30. The overall deficit is between $2.5 billion and $3 billion.
As part of the budget, it should help local school districts by reforming charter school funding.
Tuition paid by school districts to charters is based on the school district’s cost per student, rather than the charter school’s actual cost per student. Lawmakers should change the formula so that tuition paid by districts reflects the charter’s actual cost, which almost always is far lower than the school district’s cost per student.
Lawmakers have dithered on this issue for years, and now it’s an emergency. They should resolve it now in favor of taxpayers rather than charter school operators.