Oct. 10, 2017

Is a charter school public? How do they get funds? Reader questions answered.

By Mary Niederberger

Oct. 10, 2017

Is a charter school public? How do they get funds? Reader questions answered.

By Mary Niederberger

First-grade student Gabrielle Johnson-Thomas participates in class at Manchester Academic Charter School on April 24, 2017. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Part of the series

The Charter Effect

Traditionally, the 20th anniversary is celebrated with china but we are marking the 20th anniversary of Pennsylvania’s charter school law with transparency and depth. While other local media outlets have reported on the sweeping change charter school choice has had on students and traditional school districts, our series will expand on that by teasing out the root of the tension between charters and other public schools: money and what appears to be differing standards of accountability.

This series will expose and explain the data and records behind the charter schools operating in Allegheny County.

For the past two months, PublicSource’s “Charter Effect” series has covered various topics related to local brick-and-mortar and statewide cyber charter schools. Among the issues we’ve examined are finances, along with teacher turnover and transparency.

We also wrote about cyber charter attendance policies and the amount of money charters have spent on advertising. The project also features an easy-to-use interactive on all of the brick-and-mortar charter schools in Allegheny County.

Along the way, you, our readers have asked for additional information. We selected five questions you asked and got the answers for you, based on information from the state Department of Education and charter school operators.

Q: A reader asked us to make the distinction between public and private charter schools in Pennsylvania.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, all charter schools in Pennsylvania are public. In fact, the state School Code says: A charter will be granted only for a school organized as a public, nonprofit corporation.

Nationally, all charter schools are public schools, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. There is such a thing as a for-profit public school, though. While there are no for-profit charter schools in Pennsylvania, they exist in other states. About 13 percent of charters nationally are operated as for-profit schools, according to the National Alliance group.

Q: How much money do traditional public schools get per student? And how does it compare to how much the traditional public schools pay per student in tuition to charter schools?

Charter school tuition rates are based on each district’s average per-pupil cost (minus expenditures for items and services such as adult education programs, transportation, non-public schools programs, facilities acquisition, construction and improvement).

Charter school tuition comes in two rates — one for regular education and one for special education. Those rates are different for each school district based on that district’s costs. So it’s easy to see on their financial documents how much the charter schools are receiving in tuition for each type of student.

Fifth-grade student Nuru Washington, 11, (center) researches lunar landers in an environmental literacy class at the Environmental Charter School on May 23, 2017. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

To see the tuition rates for each school district in the state, click here and scroll down to “charter school tuition rates.” Then open the Excel spreadsheet, which will show you special education tuition rates and non-special education tuition rates the districts. Those rates apply regardless of which charter school a student attends.

But comparing it to what the students’ home districts spend per student on regular education and special education is difficult. The Pennsylvania Department of Education does not keep data in a format that allows for line-to-line comparisons.

The state provides an average student cost for each district. But that total includes both regular and special education costs.

(To explore, go here. Click on the year you want to download a spreadsheet. Go to the second tab/worksheet. Scroll to the second to last column for ‘Total Exp per ADM’ to get the total expenditure per student. ADM stands for average daily membership.)

Q. If a student leaves a charter school during the course of the year, does the charter still get paid for the remainder of the year?

Charter schools are paid tuition only for the days that students attend the school. They cannot collect tuition for students after they withdraw. For brick-and-mortar schools, attendance is measured by the number of days a student physically attends the school. Cyber charters, however, are permitted to use their own measures for attendance. Those measures range from requiring daily log-ins to submitting work once a week.

If students withdraw from a charter school during the course of a school year, the charter loses the tuition revenue even though its budget may have been formulated based on having that money. Some charter operators indicated this makes budgeting difficult.

Q: Why is advertising permitted for charter schools?

Advertising is permitted for all schools, charter and traditional; it is not prohibited in the state School Code. Traditional school districts have students who live within their boundaries assigned to their schools. Therefore, they generally do not see a need to advertise. Charter schools, however, do not have students automatically assigned to attend. They must recruit their students and use advertising to do so. A small number of public school districts, usually those who lose a large percentage of students to charter schools, do advertise. Among them is Pittsburgh Public Schools.

PublicSource reported that 12 of the 14 statewide cyber charter schools spent a combined $21 million on advertising in the last three school years. Among brick-and-mortar charter operators in Allegheny County, 12 of the 14 spent a combined $678,000 during the same three years.

Q: A reader referenced a national study of charter schools commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education under George W. Bush. Has Pennsylvania ever done any kind of study or assessment of either the brick-and-mortar or cyber charters in the state?

Results from the first national comparison of test scores between charter school students and traditional public school students were released in 2004, during the first term of President George W. Bush. The analysis showed that charter school students in fourth grade were academically about a half year behind their traditional school counterparts.

A New York Times story on the results released by the U.S. Department of Education reported that 25 percent of fourth graders attending charter schools were proficient in math and reading while 30 percent of students at traditional schools were proficient in reading and 32 percent in math.

In Pennsylvania, state Department of Education Spokeswoman Casey Smith said there has been one study performed on charter schools in the state, commissioned by the Legislature in 2001, with results released in October 2002.

For that study, the department contracted with Western Michigan University to evaluate Pennsylvania’s charter schools over two years.

Reading Specialist Mark Beck leads a reading group at Manchester Academic Charter School on April 24, 2017. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

The 15-year-old study found a number of issues:

  • Charter teachers were younger and less experienced than their traditional school counterparts, paid substantially lower than their peers in traditional schools and left in high numbers.
  • The report noted that nearly 40 percent of charter school teachers left during or between the 1998-99 and 1999-2000 school years.
  • “Overall, charter schools were making modest achievement gains against demographically and geographically similar schools, although the gains were not uniform.”
  • “There were some charter-host school differences in enrollment of low-income, minority and special education students.”
  • “There was minimal diffusion of innovation from charter to non-charter schools."

As evident through our Charter Effect series, many of these issues persist today.

The department in 2001 also attempted to study the state’s cyber charter schools. It hired KPMG Consulting to perform a $175,000 study. The firm could not get information from the largest of the seven cyber charters operating at the time, which enrolled more than half of the state’s cyber school students, and the study was based on information supplied by the six other schools.

Among the report’s recommendations were:

  • the state should set a single per-pupil tuition rate, rather than charge different rates to each district;
  • students and cyber schools should notify districts when students enroll in cyber schools;
  • cyber charters should keep detailed records on finances, management and enrollment;
  • and cyber charters should find ways to allow access to cyber school board meetings.

More recently, a study conducted by a Temple University researcher concluded that in New York City, traditional schools located nearby charter schools saw a small bump in academic performance, and the study suggests there is a correlation.

But the Washington Post in an August article cited flaws in the data that raise questions about the validity of the study’s conclusions. Among the flaws cited were not taking into account student mobility, parent’s expectations for academic achievement, instructional expenditures and school climate.

StoryMary Niederberger

Mary covers education for PublicSource. She can be reached at mary@publicsource.org or on Twitter @marynied.

Fact checkingMatt Petras

Matt is a PublicSource intern.

EditingHalle Stockton and Mila Sanina

Halle is PublicSource's managing editor. Mila is PublicSource's executive director.

Web developmentNatasha Khan

Natasha is PublicSource's interactives & design editor.