Pennsylvania’s Charter School Law

Testimony of Nathan A. Benefield to the Pennsylvania Senate Education Committee, March 12, 2009

Good afternoon.  I am Nathan Benefield, Director of Policy Research for the Commonwealth Foundation.  We are a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg.  I would like to thank the members of this committee for inviting me to speak on this crucial issue.

I will allow others to speak to the specifics of the current charter school law and room for improvement; my testimony will focus on the benefits of charter schools for families and taxpayers.

While Pennsylvania’s population has been stagnant and traditional public school enrollment has declined, charter school enrollment has surged.  Since the opening of the first charter schools in Pennsylvania in 1997-98, charter school enrollment has increased every year, to over 67,000 in 2007-08.  Cyber schools, added to the state law in 2001-02, have also proved increasingly popular, enrolling nearly 20,000 students today.

Charter schools are certainly meeting a demand for parents who want educational options for their children.  Charter schools disproportionately serve low-income students and those struggling in traditional public schools, and tend to be far more popular in districts with low overall academic performance.  This should not be surprising—these are the families who want and need educational opportunities the most.

Pennsylvania K-12 Enrollment Data
 Cyber Charter Brick and Mortar Charter Total Charter Traditional Public
1997-98 982 982 1,814,169
1998-99 5,563 5,563 1,810,851
1999-00 11,413 11,413 1,805,303
2000-01 0 18,981 18,981 1,795,330
2001-02 1,852 26,601 28,453 1,793,174
2002-03 3,584 29,278 32,862 1,783,885
2003-04 5,876 35,238 41,114 1,780,032
2004-05 9,462 38,750 48,212 1,789,339
12,734 42,896 55,630 1,775,054
2006-07 15,838 44,138 59,976 1,761,407
2007-08  19,715        47,560 67,275 1,734,485
Source: Pennsylvania Department of Education

While the state requires numerous accountability standards for charter schools—including standardized testing and forcing schools to have a regular review of their charter every few years—the ultimate test for charter schools is choice. If parents are not pleased with the school’s results, they can choose another or even return to their assigned district school.

Charter schools cost substantially less, per-pupil, than do traditional public schools.  Per-pupil spending in district-run schools was over $13,000 in 2007-08, compared with under $11,000 in charter schools (among cyber charters, per-pupil spending averaged under $9,000).

I realize that property taxes have been, and remain, one of the most important issues for voters and lawmakers—this is not surprising, since school property taxes have doubled in the past 11 years.  The promise of property-tax relief from gambling revenues has been hollow.  The state dolled out over $600 million from the Property Tax Relief Fund last year, as the first disbursement for all homeowners.  However, local property taxes increased by an estimated $2.3 billion since the slots law was enacted, far exceeding the level of relief.

Charter schools—along with other choice options such as home-schooling, private schools, and the Educational Improvement Tax Credit—offer taxpayers substantial relief, based on the cost difference.   Because charter schools spend only about 80% of what traditional public schools spend, their cost-difference amounts to over $174 million.  Cyber schools alone amount to cost savings of almost $51 million.

Pennsylvania K-12 Spending
Total Spending Enrollment Per-pupil spending Savings vs. Cost of District Schools
District-run Schools $22,910,468,629 1,718,588 $13,331
Public Charter (all) $722,698,235 67,275 $10,742 $174,143,694
Cyber Charter $168,686,487 19,715 $8,556 $51,032,968
Source: Pennsylvania Department of Education

Despite the many benefits of charter schools, they are often under attack from traditional public schools.  For instance, in Chester County, the Avon Grove Charter School was billed $500,000 for county, municipal, and school district property taxes for the first time ever last month, despite being established as a non-profit entity.  Last year, the Chester-Upland District attempted to cap charter school enrollment, until the Commonwealth Court intervened.  And some legislators and advocates have pushed for limiting the per-pupil costs of cyber schools, unfairly singling out these students.    

I am not about to suggest that charter schools are perfect,  Many charter schools have abysmal records, and a handful of charter school administrators have been caught up in scandal recently.  But unlike traditional public schools, these schools can be shut down and have their charter revoked, or they can be turned over to new management.  Indeed these troubled schools have received disciplinary action, and many charters have been shut down over the years—a consequence that traditional public schools do not face.

Nor would the Commonwealth Foundation outright oppose a statewide per-pupil funding rate for cyber or all charter school students.  But I would rather suggest that such a rate be applied to every student, regardless of their choice in schools.  These funds belong to taxpayers, not school boards, and are meant for the education of children.

What lawmakers should do is apply the lessons and benefits of charters to all schools.

  • State and local funding should follow the child—all public schools should receive funding only when families choose to send their children there.
  • All public schools should have charters that have to be renewed periodically. When schools fail to meet performance standards, they should have their charters revoked or management replaced.
  • Families should be able to choose the public school—both inter- and intra-district—they send their children to, and schools should have to compete to attract students.  Pennsylvania should end the “assignment system” whereby children’s schools are determined by their parents’ zip code.

Charter schools provide educational offerings to thousands of Pennsylvania students, and parents increasingly choose charter schools over other educational options.  It is troubling that the traditional school districts view this competition as a threat.  The truth is that both children and taxpayers benefit when parents have choices and schools compete.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify.  I am happy to answer any questions.