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Governor advocates for cyber charter oversight

Third grade teacher Caroline Kelly listens as Gov. Tom Wolf talks with Logan Elementary student Jackson Eberhart during a visit to the school on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. Wolf was in Altoona to talk with local school officials about his plans for charter school reform. / Altoona Mirror photo by Russ O'Reilly

ALTOONA — Gov. Tom Wolf touted charter school reform and announced the closure of the state’s lowest performing cyber charter school during a visit to Altoona on Tuesday.

Superintendents from Blair, Cambria and Centre counties filled the library at Altoona Area’s Logan Elementary for Wolf’s visit.

Through executive action as well as encouraging legislative action, Wolf said he intends to reform charter schools. He spoke in general of making charter schools more accountable and transparent.

“The idea is to make sure we create a level playing field for traditional schools and charter schools,” he said.

“I want to make sure underperforming charter schools are held accountable.”

Wolf said that charter schools — including cyber charters — compose 6 percent of public schools in the state. They also represent 25 percent of the state’s worst performing schools, he said.

Wolf said Achieving Community Transformation Academy, which ranks at the bottom, is set to close by the end of December.

“Keep in mind we are talking about taxpayer-funded schools,” Wolf said.

The annual cost of charter schools has risen to $1.8 billion.

Several superintendents including Altoona Area’s Charles Prijatelj, Greater Johnstown’s Amy Arcurio and Penns Valley’s Brian Griffith informed Wolf about how millions of their districts’ taxpayer dollars, which could be used for hiring teachers and reducing class sizes, are instead paid to cyber charter schools.

Those school leaders raised concerns about cyber charters receiving regular education students and then putting them in special education programs and billing school districts for exorbitant special education costs.

“The funding formula has incentivized that to occur,” Griffith said.

Almost all of a charter or cyber charter’s funding is for tuition, taxpayer money that passes through public school districts. The amount districts pay to charters is dictated by a state formula.

When a student chooses to attend cyber charter school, the school bills the district where the student resides has to pay the average cost to educate a student.

It costs more to educate special education students because of services including personal nurses, therapists, vision specialists and other services for severe special needs, and charter schools bill for a corresponding amount for those students.

Not all special education students need those services, but even if a student is placed in special education for a mild case of speech pathology and doesn’t need services associated with more severe needs, the state formula makes the district pay an average of how much it costs to educate a special education student, which includes all of the more expensive services, Griffith said.

Altoona Area’s tuition for a special education student is more than $21,000 compared to $10,000 for a regular education student, Prijatelj said.

Altoona Area spent more than $3 million last year to send 253 students to cyber charter schools. That’s $1 million more than the previous year, Prijatelj said, but there were the same number of students attending cyber charters from the district. The difference was that the cyber charter schools switched about 100 students to special education programs and billed the district accordingly.

Anna Meyers, executive director of Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools offered a response after Wolf’s appearance.

Meyers noted that the governor has held several press events discussing closing public charter schools and placing restrictions on them. Meyers said charter school families are tired of being treated like second-class citizens by the governor.

In regard to school superintendents’ specific concerns Tuesday about special education, Meyers gave a different view.

“They claim we overidentify special needs students. They always accuse the cybers of that. But it’s about providing necessary supports at the earliest stage of development. Students have to go through an evaluation in accordance with state mandates. The result is a special education plan, an annual review and evaluation and review. To say we overidentify is unbelievable to me.”

Windber Area Superintendent Joseph Kimmel suggested to Wolf that school districts be involved in screening processes before a cyber charter places a student in special education.

The overall issue of financial accountability is something Meyers said charter schools will gladly come to the table and discuss.

“It’s time for a charter school funding committee to be commissioned. The negative rhetoric has never before escalated to the level it has,” she said. “Nothing gets accomplished. It’s time for the General Assembly to put a commission in place so we can all come to table and at end of day decide what’s right and wrong as far as funding.”

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