A Closer Look at Charter/Cyber Charter Schools
Continuing on the theme of education, this week we are going to explore one of the most contentious issues during this year’s budget debate: charter and cyber charter schools. Charter schools are public schools that students throughout the state can choose to attend without paying tuition. Cyber charter schools are the same concept only the cyber charter school delivers most of their instruction online in an in-home setting and typically provides the student with a computer.
Under a 1997 law, Pennsylvania charter and cyber charter schools receive funds from a student’s home school district. The amount is based on how much the district spends to educate its own students and the amount increases if special education services are needed. Because there are 500 districts, there are 500 different charter rates.
During the 2011-12 school year, there were 167 charter schools statewide and 13 cyber charters in Pennsylvania. Of the 105,036 students attending charter schools in 2011-12, a total of 32,322 were enrolled in cyber charter schools. Due to serious financial and educational shortcomings, one of the 13 cyber charter schools will be going out of business for the upcoming school year.
This fall, students will be able to choose from four new cyber charter schools, bringing the statewide total to 16. All four of the new cyber schools are located in the Philadelphia region. It is believed that the new schools will add an additional 1,500 students to the cyber charter total in their first year of operation.
Advocates of charter and cyber charter schools believe these types of institutions allow students to learn at their own pace and often alleviate the risk of problems in their home districts like bullying.
Many critics of charter and cyber charter schools feel that these institutions are not held to the same academic standards as public schools, yet are receiving taxpayer money. A 2011 report by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University backs this analysis and found that cyber schools performed substantially lower on Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests than traditional brick-and-mortar schools. Furthermore, in 2011, only two of the state’s existing cyber charters met the standards established under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Another area of argument is that cyber schools do not cost as much to operate because they do not have the expenses that the typical bricks and mortar schools have so why should these institutions receive the same amount of funding as students attending public schools? The counter argument has been that public schools are artificially adjusting their per-student costs in order to avoid having to pay more. With that being said, some advocates for and against charter and cyber charters do agree that the funding formula for these non-traditional schools needs to be re-evaluated. Many favor a bill that would create an independent, statewide commission to study funding.
In June, the Pennsylvania Auditor General stated that taxpayers would save $365 million a year if the state altered the funding formula for cyber charter schools and charter schools. The released report shows that cyber charters are not paid based on how much it costs to educate a student and do not have to return any balance left over at the end of the year to the school district in which they received this money from. Overall, Pennsylvania charter schools spend an average of $13,411 per student, a figure higher than the national average of $10,000. The average cost of educating students at the state's 13 cyber charter schools, $10,145, far exceeds the national average of $6,500.
Since Governor Tom Corbett took office in 2011, one of his main goals has been charter school reform. In particular, evaluation of a less “flawed” funding formula, prohibiting conflicts of interest for charter and cyber charter board of trustees and employees, standardized reporting requirements, development of academic performance, and a system to evaluate charter and cyber charter schools. Some of these issues are addressed with an amendment to Senate Bill 1115 (SB 1115), a special education reform bill, and House Bill 1330 (HB 1330), a charter school measure. However, after weeks of negotiations, these two bills fell through and legislative leaders have stated the agenda will be continued in the coming months. In the end, the differences between SB 1115 and HB 1330 were too large for the General Assembly, the governor, teacher unions and charter and cyber charter schools advocates to find a compromise.
With the draconian budget cuts that took place during the 2012-13 budget negotiations, the General Assembly needs to look at all aspects and where the state can find or save money. School districts across Pennsylvania have had to evaluate their curriculum as well as how to utilize staff and funding more efficiently and effectively. The same standards should be placed on these non-traditional schools. As I have stated time and time again, when taxpayers’ money is on the line, there needs to be some oversight to make sure these institutions are being responsible and this case is no different. While the Legislature continues to examine the issue, students who thrive in a non-traditional setting or those who are trying to escape a poor-performing school district can seek assistance in the recently passed law that expands the education scholarships that are now available.
Voter ID Update
Last week, a Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court judge upheld the new Voter ID law, which will take effect for this fall’s election on November 6th. Act 18, which was signed into law by Governor Corbett on March 14th, requires all voters to show an acceptable form of photo identification prior to voting. While I remain hopeful that the state Supreme Court will overturn this transparently partisan voter ID law, the Administration should be more actively helping citizens obtain these required ID cards.
If the Commonwealth is going to require voters to show photo identification at the polls on Election Day, the process of obtaining a valid photo identification card needs to be simpler and more convenient. For those individuals who do not have a driver’s license, obtaining the necessary supporting documentation and getting to a Driver License Center can be a serious challenge. There are 253 members of the state legislature with offices located throughout the state. Many of these offices have notaries on staff, computers, and the technology necessary to assist voters seeking photo identification. The Governor should authorize these state offices to produce the photo identification, or at the very least, establish more centers in neighborhoods where individuals can go to get photo identification.
Bringing this service into communities would make the process of obtaining a voter identification card more convenient instead of placing undue burdens on those seeking to exercise their constitutional right to vote. While the Commonwealth has made subtle changes to the law - like enacting a system to verify birth records for those born in Pennsylvania who do not possess a birth certificate - the requirement that individuals must go to a Driver License Center remains. In cases where someone does not have a birth certificate, once PennDOT verifies birth records with the Department of Health, that person must return to the Driver License Center a second time to obtain their new photo identification card.
The state’s own estimates suggest as many as 750,000 Pennsylvanians lack the necessary photo identification needed to vote and as many as 100,000 live in Allegheny County. There are only four Driver License Centers in Allegheny County where photos are taken. With less than three months until Election Day, that’s a lot of people needing to secure identification in so few facilities in such a short time. Regardless of whether the Supreme Court overturns the Commonwealth Court ruling, the Governor, Department of State, and PennDOT should be doing everything in their power to make this photo identification process as simple and convenient as possible.
Gear for Grades
Senator Fontana is joined by Joe Lagana, Founder & CEO of Homeless Children's Education Fund and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald at the Gear for Grades initiative on August 20th. Citizens Bank employees collected and loaded backpacks and school supplies onto buses that will be distributed to homeless children throughout Allegheny County.
Yesterday, I was delighted to attend and participate in the Gear for Grades initiative organized by Citizens Bank in downtown Pittsburgh. The Gear for Grades initiative supports the efforts of the Homeless Children's Education Fund (HCEF) by providing more than 2,300 children in the region with new backpacks and school supplies. I have worked closely with HCEF during my time in the state Senate and commend them once again on their mission to advocate for and provide direct service programs that support the education of homeless children in Allegheny County. Due to the extraordinary efforts by Citizens Bank and through their support of HCEF, many homeless children in western Pennsylvania will have a new backpack and supplies to help them get started on another school year.
When we think about homelessness in this country, the effect that it has on children is often overlooked. There are well over 1 million children in the United States that are homeless and over 30,000 in Pennsylvania. Just within Allegheny County, there are at least 2,000 homeless children that we know of and probably another 2,000 that have not been identified. In July, Senate Bill 157 (SB 157), legislation I wrote, was signed into law by the Governor as Act 123 of 2012, creating the Task Force on Homeless Children’s Education. The Task Force is charged with determining successful strategies and best practices and issuing a report and a set of recommendations to the legislature and the Administration so we can implement measures that provide education to homeless children.
While the creation of the Task Force and the work that is to follow will help solve this crisis, the crisis still exists. For many families, especially those that are homeless, the purchase of basic school supplies for their children is a burden. Children experiencing homelessness deserve the same educational opportunities as any other child and the Gear for Grades initiative is going to distribute these needed backpacks and supplies to children that are in need of such help.
Did You Know…
Did you know since 2003, the Gear for Grades initiative has helped more than 200,000 children with new backpacks and school supplies?
4th Annual Cruisin’ on the Hilltop
On August 18th I attended the 4th Annual Cruisin’ on the Hilltop, organized by the Hilltop Economic Development Corporation (HEDC). Cruisin’ on the Hilltop featured a petting zoo, games for kids, a car cruise, flea market and vendor sidewalk and street sales. HEDC is a non-profit corporation dedicated to serving the neighborhoods of Arlington, Bon Air, Carrick, Knoxville and Mt. Oliver by unifying with business owners and residents to develop a more vibrant Hilltop region. It was a wonderful event and I commend Ruthann Omer, Rick Sikora, Steve Hutter and all the members of the HEDC for their hard work and commitment to work together to grow the community.
Run (or Walk) Your Rox Off!
There is still time to register for the 4th Annual Run Your Rox Off 5K and 1 Mile Run/Walk scheduled for Friday, August 31st. This event provides an evening of fun and festivities and a chance to give back to the community. All proceeds from the event benefit the McKees Rocks Community Development Corporation and its mission to continue the revitalization of McKees Rocks and Stowe.
The race starts at 6:30 p.m. with a free concert, petting zoo and face-painting for children, among other activities, beginning after the race. You can register for the race online. For more information please call 412-331-9900 or visit the McKees Rocks Borough website.
Senator Fontana is joined by Judge Jeffrey A. Manning and Judge Paul E. Cozza at the swearing in ceremony for Judge Cozza on August 14th. Judge Manning presided over the swearing in ceremony.
I was thrilled to participate in the swearing in ceremony of newly appointed Judge Paul E. Cozza on August 14th. Judge Cozza was nominated by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate in June to fill a vacant seat on the Allegheny County Common Pleas bench. He will serve the Fifth Judicial District of Pennsylvania in the Family Division. Judge Cozza has been a friend of mine for over 30 years and I have always known him to be a man of integrity and compassion. He is a tireless worker with a terrific legal mind and will perform his new duties at the highest of levels. I congratulate Judge Cozza and wish him well as he moves to the bench!
Volunteers Needed for Great Race
While open registration slots for the 2012 Richard S. Caliguiri City of Pittsburgh Great Race have been allocated, it’s not too late to get involved in this year’s festivities. The Great Race is scheduled for September 30th and a record-setting 15,000 people are entered. The Great Race staff is in need of volunteers for pre-race and post-race activities, during the actual race and for the 2012 Junior Great Race, which is scheduled for September 23rd. To inquire about volunteer opportunities, please visit the Volunteer Page on the race’s website. You may register to volunteer as an individual or with a group and all volunteers will receive food and drink along with a long-sleeve t-shirt.
It is not too late to register for the Junior Great Race which is scheduled for noon on September 23rd at Point State Park. Children ages 5-12 can be registered for the One Mile Fun Run and children ages 4 and under can participate in the 50 Yard Tot Trot. The Diaper Dash allows for the youngest contestants who are just learning to walk, the opportunity to dash across protective mats. For more information on the Junior Great Race or to pre-register, please visit http://www.rungreatrace.com/junior_great_race.html.
25 Days Until FontanaFest! – Join us on Saturday, September 15th from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at South Side’s Riverfront Park (bottom of 18th Street at the river) for a FREE day of family fun! Enjoy FREE food and drink, entertainment, door prizes, numerous booth sponsors, games for kids and much more! The Pittsburgh Water Limo will be offering rides on our rivers between 12:30 and 2:30 p.m. and the PA Fish & Boat Commission will be providing canoes so families can enjoy a smooth ride on the Monongahela. Over 30 participating organizations will be on hand providing activities for people of all ages. Please visit www.fontanafest.com for updates on the day’s events, sponsor information and a listing of participating organizations.
Emerald View Park Trail Opening
The Mt. Washington Community Development Corporation (MWCDC) is hosting an event to celebrate the Emerald View Park trail opening tonight from 5 to 7:30 p.m. The celebration is being held at the Olympia Park Pavilion on Mt. Washington and is open to the public. The MWCDC will provide trail tours, door prizes, entertainment, lemonade and dessert. For more information please visit www.mwcdc.org.
According to Pittsburgh Today the cost of living in Western Pennsylvania during the 2nd quarter of 2012 was lower than 11 other cities of comparable size and economic activity. Pittsburgh’s Composite Cost of Living Index is also below the benchmark average.
Offices of State Senator Wayne D. Fontana