District school district officials have responded positively to Governor Tom Wolf’s recent efforts to implement charter school reform.
But a charter school official said the governor’s plan was damaging institutions like his.
Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School CEO James Hanak said Wolf’s pressure for reform represents a conflict of interest.
“Wolf entered his governorship with $ 20 million from the teachers’ union,” Hanak said.
“One of the things they wanted in return was for him to stop or hinder the charter school movement because charter schools, by and large, are not unionized.”
Wolf recently announced his charter school reform plan, which he says would save school districts and Commonwealth taxpayers nearly $ 400 million a year.
Dave Francis, a member of the Altoona area school board, said it was time for Wolf to step in.
“Finally, Governor Wolf takes the initiative to fight against the costs of the cyber charter in order to make them responsible for what they spend and the children’s bills” said Francois.
Francis said the main problem with charters is the funding they get at the expense of public schools. These private institutions, he said, drain financial resources from districts like the Altoona region.
“They take our money from us and we spend more than we should”, said Francois. “There is no recourse for the districts to go and see how much these cyber schools are actually spending and how the students are doing in school. We have to pay the bill they send us.
According to Altoona Region School District Superintendent Charles Prijatelj, that bill is between $ 4.5 million and $ 4.8 million for this year. As for the cost per student, Deputy District Superintendent Brad Hatch said the district pays about four times more per charter student than per public school student.
According to Hanak, however, the charters are the schools that suffer financially. He said Wolf’s reform plan would only make matters worse.
“Charter schools are already only getting 75 cents on the dollar for every dollar they spend on that same student.” Hanak said. “What Wolf’s plan could do is reduce that amount to 50 cents on the dollar. (Charters) operate with half the resources, but are held to the same standards. “
Francis believes charter schools have received special treatment because they are not held to the same standards as their public school counterparts.
“(Cyber charters) do not have to report to the state on their progress on children’s progress and our district can only spend money (COVID-19 relief) on certain items, but we don’t know what cyber charters can spend their money on ”, said Francois.
Like Francis, Prijatelj supports Wolf’s plan. The superintendent said that there is “aspects” of the plan he likes.
“The changes to the management and funding of special education are huge for us because special education students with higher needs will not be as compelled to turn to cyber as they need a lot more. ‘practical and supportive instructions. “ said Prijatelj. “So with the tiered system for special education, (Wolf’s plan) will definitely benefit us. “
Hollidaysburg area school district superintendent Robert Gildea said Wolf’s plan “absolutely work.”
“Any common sense help with the current charter funding system will go a long way to helping school districts reduce the burden on our taxpayers,” said Gildea.
Although he supports Wolf’s plan, Gildea is concerned that other bills, especially Senate Bill 1, will not solve the problem. He said the bill has many flaws. “Senate Bill 1 deals with the Charter Schools Act with some language regarding ethics and audits that (Pennsylvania Alternate System of Assessment) has requested” said Gildea. “But most of the terms in the bill are favorable to charter schools and there is nothing about the tuition formula or financial relief for school districts.”
Gildea added that on top of that, Senate Bill 1 would remove discretion from school boards and taxpayers by implementing charter approval in Harrisburg instead of keeping it in individual districts.
“What is also clear is that the bill would provide another option for the approval of charter schools other than local school boards by creating the Public Charter School Board, which would include people appointed by the legislator and a person appointed by the governor “, said Gildea. “In other words, with strong majorities in favor of the charter in the House and Senate, the commission would provide a smoother process for charter approval without input from the local school board.”
Central Cambria School District Superintendent Jason Moore supports Wolf’s reform plan, though he said the governor could do even more.
“I definitely support Wolf’s plan” Moore said. “But I would say it doesn’t go far enough to limit the reach of charter cyber schools. It is definitely a step in the right direction.
Perhaps Moore’s greatest grievance with these charters is the quality of the education they provide.
“There really is no proof that they are effective if you look at the performance” Moore said. “They’re all at the bottom of the performance list and they get loads of money from local school districts.”
Hanak’s response to that?
“Do you know the SAT and ACT scores? We’re in the top 5% of all high schools in Pennsylvania, ” he said of his institution.
According to a Capitolwire press release, Commonwealth charters often have low graduation rates, and all Pennsylvania cyber schools are designated for Federal School Improvement.
Hanak said the poor performance of charter students was not the fault of their teachers.
“The average student who comes to us is a year and a half behind in his studies”, Hanak said. “Basically, if our students are doing poorly, it’s not because of us; it’s because of the school they come from.
As for the quality of teaching in the charters, Hanak said the data speaks for itself.
“There are studies which show that charter schools in general are better academically than their counterparts”, Hanak said. “You can pull out our catalog of programs and you will see pretty much any course you would want to take in a high school, including nine different languages, AP, specialization courses; you name it, we have it. There is no limit to what you can take in these charter cyber schools.
Hanak added that charter school teachers are “as good, if not better,” than those in public school districts.
Portage area school district superintendent Eric Zelanko said institutions like Hanak deny students in public schools educational opportunities. He thinks Wolf’s plan is “a good starting point.” Without it, Zelanko said, public schools will continue to suffer from the loss of funds to private charters.
“Pupils who stay in traditional schools would continue to lose opportunities”, Zelanko said. “It’s the long-term impact.”
Mirror staff writer Andrew Mollenauer is at 814-946-7428.