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PA Budget Impasse Pressures Charter Schools

By Evan Grossman
For The Pennsylvania Independent

HARRISBURG PA – Pennsylvania charter schools are being “strangled” by the state budget impasse that’s dragged on for three months and has cut off funding to school districts, says one charter school advocate.

The Keystone Alliance for Public Charter Schools is demanding that school districts like Pottsgrove, Pottstown, Spring-Ford and others across the state release necessary funding to charters, despite the budget stalemate that’s held up any state spending. The impasse has already delayed more than $1 billion in school funds, but the Alliance argues holding up tuition payments to charter schools is a violation of state law.

“The Charter School Law does not permit school districts to withhold funding from charter schools in the absence of a state budget,” said Tim Eller, Alliance executive director. “The bulk of funding for charter schools is funneled through school districts, and with many of them refusing to pay, charter schools are being financially strangled. This is affecting thousands of students who attend charter schools across the state.”

Citing the state budget impasse, Eller said many districts are either reducing or suspending tuition payments to brick-and-mortar charter schools. Schools rely on local districts for funding, and charters are being forced to draw from reserve funds.

The challenge is not limited to charter schools. The cash-strapped Chester Upland School District outside Philadelphia has been unable to pay teachers the first month of the school year because of paralyzed financing from the state. Districts like Chester Upland and Philadelphia, which draw a large percentage of their annual budget from the state, are particularly stressed.

According to a survey conducted by the PA Association of School Business Officials, 83 percent of districts are using or may use fund balances to cover the lack of state subsidy payments. Half of respondents said they borrowed or are considering borrowing to avoid any cash flow difficulties.

“Many brick-and-mortar charter schools across the state are struggling to remain open during the state budget impasse,” Eller said. “Although the Alliance recognizes that school districts too are facing difficulties, charter schools are in a worse position since not one dollar is flowing to them.”

Districts collected upwards of $20 billion in local revenue and reserve funds in the past year, and Eller wants to see some of that go toward charter schools.

“School districts are ignoring their statutory obligation to fund the education of their students who chose to attend a charter school,” Eller said. “Districts must recognize the harm they are inflicting on a student’s right to a high-quality education.”

Section 1725-A of the Public School Code requires school districts to pay charter schools “in 12 equal monthly payments, by the fifth day of each month, within the operating school year.”

“Students who attend a charter deserve access to the funding that their local school district is withholding,” Eller said. “On behalf of its members and all brick-and-mortar charter schools across the state, the Keystone Alliance calls on districts to release funding to charter schools to ensure students continue to have access to their educational programs and services.”

Bob Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said some districts refuse to pass through any money to local charter schools.

“We are looking into the viability of a legal challenge to those districts that are withholding all monies,” he said. “Those charters with the least financial reserves are feeling the pressure more acutely. All are having a tough time, all are dipping into reserves and some are borrowing money.”

Fayfich said he hasn’t heard of any charter schools sending the signal they would be forced to close yet, but if the impasse continues into October and November, that could be a real possibility for some schools and districts.

The Campaign for Fair Education Funding, a coalition of more than 50 organizations representing educators, labor, business leaders, faith-based organizations, child advocates, charter schools and traditional public schools, is also calling for a budget resolution.

“Schools are now starting to feel the impact of the extended state budget impasse,” said Charlie Lyons, a Campaign spokesman. “If a budget had been enacted by now, Pennsylvania would have distributed more than $1 billion to the state’s public schools today, just in time for students starting the school year. Instead, that payment won’t happen, and it’s the children who will ultimately feel the pinch.”

House Republicans recently sent an $11 billion stopgap budget to Gov. Tom Wolf that would fund the state through the end of October, but it was vetoed. Wolf also vetoed a $30 billion budget in June.

Democrats have opposed these stopgap measures, arguing they remove the urgency to reach a full budget deal. Rep. Joe Markosek, the Democratic chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said approving temporary funding would only delay tough votes to bring in more revenue.

“If there’s ever been a quintessential kicking of the can down the road, this stopgap budget is it,” he said.

Republicans counter that a budget deal is not eminent, especially considering the lack of support tax increases Wolf proposed to help fund his spending priorities like public education. A stopgap budget would help entities in need like school districts, and ultimately charter schools.

Photo from The Pennsylvania Independent

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