By Sandra Miller
It’s time we shine a light on a critically important issue and start asking some questions. As Pennsylvania’s school districts face revenue shortfalls of $1 billion or more due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Pennsylvania’s charter schools stand to see a windfall of pandemic relief funding while experiencing no loss of revenue.
First, under the recently enacted state budget, charter schools will receive $15 million in state health and safety grants to address COVID-19-related health and safety needs. This is much-needed funding for school districts and brick and mortar charter schools that plan to offer some sort of adjusted schedule for in-person learning in the fall. But for cyber charter schools that offer all of their instruction virtually, this is simply free money.
Next, under the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund, charter schools are entitled to $71 million in emergency, one-time funds to help schools respond to COVID-19 impacts. Brick and mortar charter schools reasonably incurred additional costs transitioning to an alternative learning system after school buildings were closed in March. In contrast, cyber charter schools should not have incurred the same costs, since their usual instructional method is virtual.
Finally, at least 26 charter schools were awarded Paycheck Protection Program loans totaling between $24 and $56 million which may be used for limited purposes such as payroll costs, continuation of healthcare benefits, interest on mortgage obligations, and rent and utility payments. Given that charter schools are publicly funded schools, the need for these loans should be questioned, especially in light of the fact that charter schools experienced no loss of revenue due to the pandemic.
Any single form of relief funding can potentially be justified as an attempt to ensure public schools can continue safely serving their students. However, there are two factors which should make us question the true intention of such funding — and why cyber charters are reaping the rewards when not impacted in the same way.
First, Act 13 of 2020 ensured that charter schools would receive no less funding than they were entitled to as of the date public schools switched to online education. While Act 13 also guaranteed school districts the same level of state funding, local revenues were significantly decreased due to the pandemic.
Second, 90% of charter school funding comes from mandatory tuition payments from school districts. Those tuition payments are based on the expenses of local school districts from the previous school year, so any impact on school district finances due to the pandemic would take years to impact charter schools.
With families stuck at home due to the pandemic and parents considering how to best educate their children, Pennsylvania’s cyber charter schools have also stepped up their advertising, hoping to capitalize on the fears of parents who may be reluctant to send their children back to in-person classrooms this fall.
Despite apparently needing millions of dollars in pandemic relief funding, cyber charter schools still have plenty of money to spend on television and radio ads.
Ensuring public schools can safely educate Pennsylvania’s children as a global pandemic continues is a paramount concern. School district leaders are very thankful for the relief funding provided by the state and federal governments. But we need to stop and ask ourselves, where is that funding needed the most?
As school districts scramble to find revenues to safely operate, cyber charter schools stand to, once again, be the beneficiaries of a flawed education funding system.
Sandra Miller is a school director in the Saucon Valley School District.