DN Editorial: Killing charter reimbursements could be deadly to school district

Gov. Corbett
Gov. Corbett
Posted: April 28, 2011

THERE ARE plenty of devastating cuts in the school district's budget proposal presented yesterday to the School Reform Commission - 1,200 teacher layoffs, more than 2,500 other layoffs, cuts to kindergarten and other early-childhood programs - to deepen the despair over the state of education.

But there is one cut that deserves special attention; and since it falls somewhere in the middle of the list of individual budget cuts, it has the potential to be overlooked amid the acute pain of job loss and instructional cuts.

That's the loss of the state's reimbursement to the district of charter-school funding. Last month, Gov. Corbett announced that his budget would eliminate the reimbursements the state makes to districts for charter-school enrollment, for a statewide savings of $242 million.

Philadelphia has received about half that - $112 million - in reimbursements to the district for the 43,000 students attending the city's 74 charter schools. For each Philadelphia student who enrolls in a charter, the district pays the charter about $10,000; this comes out of the allotment the state gives the district on a per-pupil basis. The reimbursement recognizes that the migration of students to charters does not immediately reduce the costs to the district - for building costs and staff salaries, and other fixed costs of the district.

But that recognition has never been wholehearted. The removal of reimbursements essentially means that the state no longer recognizes the financial realities of charters. Which is disturbing, given Corbett's strong support of school choice.

We, too, are champions of choice. But we know when a business expands its product line, it expands its costs. Expanding educational choices for students costs money. The state acts as if it can create new school alternatives from the same pot of money it uses to fund the public-education system. And it oversimplifies this by saying "the money follows the child."

This is delusional, for a few reasons. First, every child who leaves a traditional public school does not also take a fraction of a teacher or part of the school building he's leaving. Ultimately, a district educating fewer students will spend less, but building consolidation and staff downsizing takes time.

Also, according to the district's chief financial officer, Michael Masch, 30 percent of charter-school students come from nonpublic schools. If a charter has 100 students, the district pays the charter for 100 students, including the 30 who may never have been in the public system, and so are not being counted in the overall per-pupil allocation.

All this could get worse. A bill in the Senate would radically reform the charter-authorization process and put it in state hands. While reforming the charter process and improving oversight are necessary, the idea of having the state mandate how many charters each district must open without accounting for a district's capacity to fund them could effectively dismantle the public-school system, by draining it of money and students. Is eliminating the public system in favor of schools with less accountability to the public something we want? Should this be in the hands of a state bureaucracy whose makeup is unknown?

This prospect gives new and scary meaning to the term "state takeover." *

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