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School choice, but what about taxpayer choice?

School choice week was just observed, meaning school choice proponents across the state spent the week filling social and traditional media with their usual talking points.

I want the average Pennsylvania taxpayer to think about not just school choice, but “tax choice.” That is, I want you to know where your “school choice” taxpayer dollars are going. In particular, the taxpayer dollars spent on special education in Pennsylvania.

Traditional public schools educate approximately 92 to 93 percent of all kids with IEPs in the state. Of all the special education students enrolled in charter schools, more than 60 percent of them fall into either the Specific Learning Disability (SLD) or Speech-Language Impairment (SLI) categories that are defined by IDEA. Those two disability categories have the lowest per-pupil expenditures. In other words, those special education students are the least expensive to educate.

Not only do the public schools have more than their fair share of students with IEPs to educate, they have the more expensive ones. Pennsylvania has a three-tier funding system for special education. This formula was developed over several years by different groups of stakeholders. It was written and passed with the intent of schools receiving special education funding based on the actual disabilities of the students.

While we know that charter schools take in mostly Tier 1 kids, they still receive Tier 2 funding. This is because despite the Special Education Funding Reform Commission coming up with a fair funding formula, the law specifically prohibits the commission from even talking about applying the formula to charters. They are funded using the old system, which was a flat amount regardless of the child’s disability.

In other words, our own laws see to it that they are overpaid for special education students. Lobbyist-influenced legislators have created this scenario, and Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable students — disabled children — are suffering because of it.

Without transparency, we don’t even know, nor are they required to report, where the excess funding goes. How much excess funding? As much as $200 million per year. A 2014 PASBO report revealed that charters were overpaid by $200 million in special education funding, yet they are not required to account for it.

Why do charter schools get to play by their own set of rules? Why are they exempt from Right to Know laws? Follow the money. Since state laws allow for charters to be privately run, there is lots of money to be made. And there is no shortage of campaign and other donations flowing into PACs to make sure that this happens.

It’s time for change. Pennsylvania has some of the most ridiculous and unfair charter school laws, with virtually no accountability to where our tax dollars are going. It’s time for change. Support Gov. Wolf’s charter reforms.

Lisa Lightner is a special education advocate who lives in southeastern Pennsylvania.

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