Pennsylvania: Charter School Money Heist

For some time now, public school superintendents in Pennsylvania, as well as the governor of that state and many others, have been striving to restrict the charter school money grab that has been allowed to run amok in that state for years.

Cyber charter schools in particular, notorious for consistently abysmal academic results and for being even more corrupt than brick-and-mortar charter schools, have come under fire because they receive large sums of public funds that are vastly disproportionate to their needs, functions, and claims. Overhead costs in cyber charter schools, it should be noted, are much lower than overhead costs in brick-and-mortar public schools and brick-and-mortar charter schools, but the flawed funding system essentially treats cyber charter schools like brick-and-mortar schools. Virtual charter schools also provide fewer services and resources than brick-and-mortar public schools, which can be especially problematic for students with special needs. All of this is beside the fact that charter schools have no legitimate claim to public money in the first place because they are not public entities in the proper sense of the word. Charter schools are privatized deregulated schools run by unelected private persons. Unlike public schools, charter schools are not agencies of the state and differ from public schools in profound ways. Charter school promoters, moreover, openly espouse “free market” ideology.

At a recent press conference addressing the siphoning of large sums of public funds from public schools to privately-operated charter schools, Christopher Dormer, superintendent of the Norristown school district, said that, “today is an attack on a law that is broken, with skewed formulas that have resulted in drastic overpayments to charters, with little or no oversight on how those tax dollars are being spent” (emphasis added). Dormer added:

I’ll tell you, it does not cost $14,000 per year to educate a child in a fully virtual environment’, referring to what Norristown pays per student attending cyber charters. In contrast, he said, it costs the district $5,500 to educate a student fully online.

In the Perkiomen Valley school district:

costs for sending students to charters have grown by more than 55% since 2015, said Superintendent Barbara Russell. ‘That takes money away from the students attending in our school district’, Russell said. While the district has its own virtual learning programs, the money it must pay for students to attend cyber charter schools where the accountability looks very different … raises lots of questions’. (emphasis added)

Virtual charter schools in Pennsylvania also exploit the public by self-servingly reclassifying many students as “special education” students just to seize more public funds from public schools that are chronically under-funded. For example:

Bill Harner, the Quakertown Community School District superintendent, said one-third of students in his district who enroll in cyber charters are classified by their new schools as having a disability. “Why are they being reclassified? Because it’s a cash cow,” Harner said. “It’s a terrible waste of taxpayer dollars.”

Larry Feinberg, a veteran school board member and director of the Keystone Center for Charter Change, points out that the existing charter school funding system means “fewer resources to pay for things like math coaches, reading coaches, nurses, counselors” in public schools. “The impact is palpable, and it’s real.”

Charter school funding arrangements (in Pennsylvania and elsewhere) are so dysfunctional that they also often force higher property taxes on communities where they exist. Equally worrisome, charter schools also impose huge “stranded costs” on public schools, which are “expenses that school districts can’t recoup when students leave for a charter, because they can’t evenly reduce teachers or building expenses, for instance.”

It thus comes as no surprise that:

More than 430 of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts have passed a resolution calling for charter funding changes, according to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

Many other examples of antisocial funding arrangements can be given. The issue though is not to determine a “more fair” way to funnel public money to privately-operated charter schools, but rather to discuss and analyze in a serious manner why these outsourced deregulated schools exist in the first place and how to untether them from public funds, assets, facilities, and resources that legitimately belong only to public schools.

Within this, what also needs to be discussed is the neoliberal “starve it—test it—punish it—privatize it” (STPP) formula, whereby thousands of public schools in Pennsylvania and elsewhere have been deliberately set up by neoliberals to fail and close in an unconscionable manner so as to make way for thousands of poor-performing charter schools constantly mired in scandal and controversy.

Two other key points are worth considering. First, like private businesses, cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania collectively spend millions of public dollars every year on marketing and advertising instead of spending this public money directly in the classroom. Secondly, why do charter schools need to advertise at all if so many parents supposedly want to enroll their kids in them and there are said to be long waiting lists to get into them? The neoliberal narrative about school-choice has never computed.

Not surprisingly, while superintendents and public interest advocates in Pennsylvania are seeking broad reforms to the current defective school funding set-up, advocates of privately-operated charter schools are fighting tooth and nail for every single public cent they can seize. They have little sympathy for public schools and their students.

To be sure, major problems caused by funneling public funds to privately-operated nonprofit and for-profit charter schools is a national problem and not unique to Pennsylvania. For more than 30 years, public schools in America have been undermined by these crisis-prone contract schools run by unelected private persons.

“Free market” schools do not advance people, society, or the economy; they mainly enrich a handful of individuals and groups. The commodification of education in a modern society based on mass industrial production is profoundly counterproductive.

See here for a detailed article on the unbreakable connection between government and charter school millionaires and lobbyists. Preventing charter schools from privately expropriating public property is doable and necessary. No one has to settle for such theft of public wealth by narrow private interests.

There are 179 charter schools in Pennsylvania. Cyber charter schools serve the entire state.

Shawgi Tell is author of the book Charter School Report Card. He can be reached at Read other articles by Shawgi.