LONDON GROVE — Parents and administrators aligned with Pennsylvania’s brick and mortar charter schools (as opposed to cyber charters) are facing the threat of reduced state funding for special education that could lead to their closings.
On Monday, about 200 representatives of the Avon Grove Charter School rode to Harrisburg to protest the passage of two identical bills -- one in the state Senate and one in the state House of Representatives -- that change the criteria by which money is allotted for students with disabilities.
According to Avon Grove Charter Head of School Kevin Brady, it involves applying a three-tiered system to determining how much funding will be given. The tiers represent levels of disability, with students whose disabilities are more severe qualifying for higher subsidies than those with lesser ones.
“The three-tiered system is meant to align with actual costs, but it is not applied equally to district and charter schools,” Brady said.
Here’s the difference, according to Brady:
The current funding for special education students is based on an arbitrary estimate that 16 percent of the students need designated funding. That funding includes not only direct costs of administering the program, but a share for the additional costs of housing, clerical, busing, etc.
The new bills provide funding for direct costs based on the severity of the disabilities only.
The difference, however, is that for mainstream public schools, the allocations would apply only to new money being sent as of the adoption of the bills. In the charter schools, the formula would apply to all the funding formulas, including the past amounts, or what Brady called “old money.”
The result of the reduction, said Brady, would likely be a disabling blow for brick and mortar charter schools. Currently, charter schools are state funding at between 65 and 68 percent of the rate of mainstream public schools. Should the bills be adopted, that number would drop dramatically.
Brady said charter school funding could drop to 50 percent, which would likely be disabling.
Brady qualified the definition of charter schools by saying that public cyber charter schools (as opposed to brick and mortar public schools that have buildings and staff to support) could weather the storm, because they have substantial reserves and do not have the expenses of building and upkeep, nor do costs go up very much when increased numbers of students enroll. Not so with the brick and mortars.
There are various opinions about this issue.
During a recent meeting Oxford Area School District, Superintendent said funding for special education in the charter schools is inflated. And while it is true that charters receive $350 million per year for special education, their direct costs are $156 million. But Brady added that charter schools also shoulder the expenses of having those students present and participating in the school as well as needing administrative services. The direct costs are only part of what it costs to educate them, he said.
State Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-19th, of West Whiteland, said the current bill is complex, and the mood in the Senate is to put it on hold.
“We were supposed to vote last Tuesday, but we ran over,” said Dinniman, who is co-chairman of the Senate’s Education Committee.
In his opinion, the three-tiered system makes perfect sense, inasmuch as it costs more to accommodate a severely disabled student as a less severely disabled one. However, addressing only direct costs, and holding the mainstream schools harmless for past levels of support is unfair.
He has proposed an amendment that would hold the brick and mortar charters harmless the same as the mainstream schools.
“I’m offering a compromise. If the bill comes up, I’ll put in the amendment that the brick and mortars won’t get less,” he said.
Dinniman is also proposing that while the special ed bill is on hold, a panel be created to look at the basic subsidy funding formulas. When that is determined, then add the actual costs to special education fund per student to that.
He added that the passage of the current bill is not a done deal. “I hope not,” he said. “I want to see Avon Grove Charter School survive. I’m doing everything possible to save Avon Grove Charter School,” he said.
State Rep. John Lawrence, R-13th, of West Grove said he is not in favor of the House bill as it stands. “It doesn’t take into account actual needs,” he said.
He added that a bill is needed that does not favor the charter schools over the district schools or the district schools over the charter schools.
“This is the issue: There’s significant discussion abouit taking a look at how basic education is funded. Some schools (with increasing enrollment are getting less and some that are (smaller) are getting much more.
“We need to look at basic education before we deal with special education. I’m not a supporter (of the current bill),” he said.
The Avon Grove Charter School was founded in 2002 and has an annual budget of $18 million. It serves 1,700 students from the districts of Kennett, Unionville, Avon Grove, Oxford, Octorara and Coatesville. It places an emphasis on science, technology and the arts.