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Quirk in Pa. charter law cripples traditional districts while giving charters 'cash cow'

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    Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

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When Delaware County's Chester Upland School District raised taxes last summer for the fourth year in a row, it was just the latest move in a long-running attempt to bring a chronically deficit-ridden district back to financial health.

"We keep asking the state to give us more," said Chester Upland's school board president, Anthony Johnson. "And the board's mindset is, we've got to stand up and do for self, too."

The district is pinning its hopes on an unusual strategy: bringing special education students back to district schools from charters — a move that could cut the district's $7 million dollar deficit by almost a third.

"This year we're coming after the cyber [charter] children. If we can get 50 back, that's over $2 million," Johnson said. "That's revenue. You have to look at it as revenue."

In the tangled world of Pennsylvania public school financing, special education payments to charters are a particularly thorny problem.

The payments are not calculated based on the actual cost of services, which can vary widely depending on a given student's needs. Nor are they based on the actual number of students served.

Instead, payments are calculated by a bafflingly complex formula that treats all districts and disabilities equally. The results can seem absurd, but bust budgets nonetheless.

Chester Upland spends about $16,000 a year on average for each special ed student in its traditional district schools. But the state's formula has forced it to pay more than $40,000 per student to charters, regardless of the child's level of disability.

Those payments crippled Chester Upland so badly that Gov. Tom Wolf and the courts stepped in.

But this is far from just an issue in Chester Upland. Newly analyzed state data show that a combination of quirks in the charter law have caused a statewide problem, because charters across Pennsylvania are enrolling a greater share of the least needy, least costly special ed students.

The special ed funding formula's intricacies are infamous. But the problem in a nutshell is this: when the neediest students concentrate in district schools, that drives up the per-pupil payments that districts must pay charters.

It's a paradox that can drain the budgets of traditional school districts while infusing charters with cash. And it creates incentives for districts like Chester Upland to do what they can to keep special ed students from migrating to charters and cyber-charters.

That's a strategy that has the support of Chester resident Jean Arnold, a longtime education advocate in the city.

"Let's specifically go after some of those children who are costing us so much money, so our efforts will get more bang for the buck," she told Johnson after Chester Upland's latest tax was passed. "Let's put together a real strategic plan."

Arnold, though, acknowledges that she doesn't like seeing the district and its charters competing for students just to keep their respective budgets balanced.

"I hate to hear someone say, 'we need to bring students here because our revenues are down,'" Arnold said. "I would like to hear them say, 'we're doing ... a great job preparing our students.'"

Read the rest of this story at NewsWorks

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Bill Hangley Jr.

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Bill Hangley Jr. is a freelance contributor to the Notebook.