Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner called last week for a moratorium on new charter and cyber charter schools, pending an overhaul of a funding system that he said has resulted in serious inequities in how taxpayers finance those alternatives to regular public schools.
The root of the problem, he said, is a state law that requires school districts to pay a charter school tuition rate per pupil based on a district’s costs. That results in different rates paid by different districts to the same charter school. For example, the Hazleton Area district paid about $6,500 to send a student to a charter school in 2008-09, while the Jenkintown district paid more than $16,000 per student.
Taxpayers put $708 million—mostly through local property taxes—into educating about 73,000 students at 127 charter and cyber charter schools in the state in 2008-09.
Mr. Wagner, who released a report based on a review of 18 charter schools and information from the state department of education, urged state policymakers to establish a tuition rate based on the actual costs of instruction and to require charter schools to reconcile their books annually, as districts are required to do.
Gov. Edward G. Rendell agreed that tuition inequities are a problem, but he said that “a flat moratorium probably isn’t a good idea.”
“Clearly [charter schools] are costing the districts,” said Gov. Rendell, a Democrat. “The question is, is it a cost worth paying? And to give choice to create competition in the district, I think, is a good thing, but that doesn’t mean that all charter schools are good.”
Guy Ciarrocchi, an advocate for the state’s charters and cyber charters, said Mr. Wagner’s call for a moratorium ignores the fact the schools operate on roughly 70 percent of what regular public schools spend. In addition to the 73,000 students in those schools, 30,000 prospective students are on waiting lists, said Mr. Ciarrocchi, the director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Charter Schools.
Pennsylvania authorized charter schools in 1997 and cyber charter schools in 2002. Both are independent schools financed by taxpayers, but conventional charter schools operate in buildings and are regulated by the school districts where they are located, while cyber charters generally reach students over the Internet and are regulated by the state.
A version of this article appeared in the October 13, 2010 edition of Education Week as Pa. Auditor Calls for Moratorium on New Charters