One million. Every day. That’s how much Pennsylvania taxpayers are losing on over-payments to charter and cyber charter schools. Auditor General Jack Wagner released a report Wednesday explaining that our state is spending “substantially more” than the national average on a “flawed and overly generous funding formula.” [Philadelphia Inquirer, 6-21-12]
That eye-popping number comes to $365 MILLION wasted dollars every year. And a nice chunk of that money is going to line the pockets of wealthy, for-profit school owners who just happen to be some of Governor Corbett’s largest campaign donors. (See “Soaking the Public” for stomach-turning details.) This latest report echoes testimony Deputy Auditor General Thomas Marks gave the House Education Committee back in March when he told them cyber charters in particular were being drastically overpaid. He noted that taxpayers and school districts could have saved approximately $86 million in 2009-2010 alone if cyber charter schools had received funding based on what they actually spent per student. (See “Trouble Seeing the Money.”)
Representative Mike Fleck, a Republican from Dauphin County, has introduced a bill (HB 2364) that would start to fix this problem. It has received bi-partisan support and been endorsed by both the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and the Pennsylvania School Employees Association, which is saying something. Auditor General Wagner calls this a “good first step” though he would still like to see legislation setting average payments for charter and cyber charter schools. He targeted cyber charter schools in particular, which are spending large amounts of money on billboards and other advertising, and often wind up with large cash reserves. [Philadelphia Inquirer, 6-21-12]
That $365 million would save a lot of Kindergarten programs, tutoring, and librarians in our public schools. Instead, our legislators are ready to hand over even more of our taxpayer money to private and parochial schools. The latest voucher-in-disguise effort comes from Rep. Jim Christiana right here in Southwest PA, who has proposed expanding the current educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program. Right now EITC gives away $75 in revenues from corporations that would otherwise be supporting the public good, and legislators have reached a “tentative agreement” to give away another $25 million in the current budget plan. [Post-Gazette, 6-22-12] Where are lawmakers finding millions of taxpayer dollars to send to private schools when our public schools are cutting Kindergarten?
But it gets worse. Playing right into the national narrative of “failing public schools,” our legislators are also planning to give away an additional $50 million that would be available to students attending the state’s bottom fifteen percent of schools. I wonder if they realize that some of the lowest-achieving schools are actually charter and private schools?
Last year, Lawrence Feinberg of the Keystone State Education Coalition used student reading and math data from the PSSAs (the state’s standardized tests), and found 30 charter schools in the bottom fifteen percent. Religious schools may optionally administer and report their PSSA scores, but he also found 7 of them at the bottom. [KSEC, “Questions About 144 Failing Schools.”] And there are surely many more. Only two of twelve Pennsylvania cyber charter schools made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) last year, and seven have never made AYP at all. (For more on charter school performance, see “Dueling Rallies.”) Should we be giving EITC “scholarships” (which are really vouchers) so that students can attend these failing charter and private schools?
Maybe we should be giving vouchers to send students from failing charter and private schools back to public schools. Oh wait. That would mean funding public schools. Well that one-million-per-day would sure help.