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Choice Advocates Decry Wolf Plan For School

By Evan Grossman
for The Pennsylvania Independent

HARRISBURG PA – Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s plans to plug the bleeding budget of one school district has school choice advocates bracing for a war on charter schools.

Earlier this year, Wolf proposed a state spending plan that called for seizing charter school savings and reduced funding for cyber charter schools. Last week, amid a budget impasse in Harrisburg that’s frozen those proposals, the Wolf administration filed an amended financial recovery plan in Delaware County’s Court of Common Pleas for the Chester Upland School District. It calls for reduced special education funding for the cash-strapped district’s charter schools.

“Unfortunately, for 25 years, the Chester Upland School District has mismanaged its finances and failed its students, and even more troubling is that the commonwealth’s solution, through governors from both parties, has been to throw money at the problem in an attempt at one-time fixes and band aids, masking what is a recurring crisis,” Wolf said in a statement.

Chester Upland faces a $22 million budget deficit. The Wolf administration, which predicts that gap to more than double in size without corrective action, recommends a plan that calls for a forensic audit of the district, the appointment of a turnaround specialist, the hiring of a financial manager and restructuring loans to achieve cost savings.

Wolf’s plan also calls for a new special education rate for students in brick-and-mortar charter schools that would produce an estimated $20.7 million in cost savings, as well as a tuition cap of $5,950 per student enrolled in the district’s cyber charter schools that could produce savings of up to $4 million in the coming year.

“This is the end of the road for Chester Upland, there can be no more one-time fixes that allow the district to only get by year-to-year because without action the district will not exist,” Wolf said. “My administration is taking this dramatic action because we cannot afford the toll this potential disaster could take on the children of Chester Upland School District.”

A judge will hold a hearing on the matter Aug. 24, but several school choice advocates are outraged Wolf has placed the blame for the district’s broken budget on charter schools.

“The plan’s fundamental premise is to blame the demise of the school district on the increasing number of parents selecting charter schools for their children,” said Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools Executive Director Bob Fayfich. “That logic is like blaming the rescue crew of the Carpathia for sinking the Titanic.”

According to the coalition, Chester Upland was first declared to be in financial distress four years before any charter schools existed in the district. More than half of the district attends charter schools, but less than half of the Chester Upland budget is spent on those students.

“The plan decries the fact that slightly less than half of the district’s budget is now used to fund charter schools, but the plan fails to correlate that to the fact that more than half of the children in the district are educated in a charter school,” Fayfich said. “These charter schools have been educational lifeboats for many families trying to save their children from what they clearly recognized as a sinking ship.”

The district’s charter schools have outperformed its traditional district schools. Chester Upland’s three brick-and-mortar charters have School Performance Profile scores of 71.7, 61.5, and 51.3 against the district SPP of 33.5.

“The Wolf Administration’s proposed amendment to Chester Upland’s financial recovery plan is an arbitrary and capricious attempt to shift the burden of the school district’s fiscal mismanagement to the community’s charter schools,” said Tim Eller, executive director of the Keystone Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Eller contends Wolf’s plan amounts to an end around the General Assembly and “tramples upon” separation of powers, which some believe makes the recovery model illegal.

House Education Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, a York County Republican, called for the reversal of Wolf’s plan.

“Wolf’s ill-advised legal maneuver merely attempts to balance the school district’s historic financial mismanagement on the backs of children and parents trying to obtain a better education in charter schools, and would allow that mismanagement to continue,” Saylor said. “Clearly, the administration is exceeding its statutory authority by attempting to impose a new charter funding mechanism on charter schools serving the Chester Upland School District and in so doing, attempting to usurp the authority of the General Assembly.”

Caught up in the Harrisburg budget impasse is House Bill 530, which is pending in the Senate and contains comprehensive charter school reforms, including the establishment of a charter school funding commission to conduct statewide spending reviews.

  • Pennsylvania Independent is a public interest journalism project dedicated to promoting open, transparent, and accountable state government. It reports on the activities of agencies, bureaucracies, and politicians in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

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