Based on their actual costs
Pennsylvania taxpayers have been paying charter schools for costs that they do not incur since the charter school movement began in earnest more than a decade ago.
Charter schools are alternative public schools. But rather than funding charters based on their documented operating costs, state law requires public school districts to pay tuition to the schools based on their own cost-per-student. As detailed repeatedly in reports by former Auditor General Jack Wagner, the formula results in wild funding disparities and scant relationship between charter funding and their actual cost of education.
Last week the state House took a step toward a more rational system by addressing one of the widest disparities. It passed a bill that would reduce by about $41 million statewide the amount that public school districts pay to charter schools that operate online, known as cyber charters.
Conventional public schools' per-student costs include everything that goes into running the district - instruction, administration, facilities costs, transportation, food service and so on. Many charter schools, especially cyber charters, do not experience many of those costs.
The House bill allows school districts to exempt from the tuition formula their pension and food service costs. That would leave conventional districts with $41 million that they could use for those or other purposes.
Although $41 million is a substantial amount of money, some legislative critics of the charter-funding say that as much as $320 million could be saved for local districts by funding all charters - cybers and those with physical facilities - based on their actual costs.
Lawmakers should pursue a formula based on actual costs, holding charters to the same standards for accountability, allowable reserves and operations, that apply to conventional districts.