Area superintendents address the state Senate Education Committee on Wednesday.

EVERETT – Some of state's cyber charter schools often found themselves on the defensive during a Senate Education Committee hearing on their accountability and funding Wednesday.

But while public school administrators from Bedford, Cambria and Clearfield counties and several charter school executives didn't agree on much during the more than three hour session at Everett High School, both sides told lawmakers a fairer funding formula would serve as one solution to what has become a decades-long dispute between them.

Cyber charter schools follow guidelines implemented by the state in 1997.

As is, public schools must send a portion of their funding – taxpayers' money – to whatever charter school a student in their district enrolls in through a per-student amount based on a percentage of what the district spends each year – with unrelated expenses such as pension obligations and bussing costs included, school officials said.

For some schools, that might mean $8,000, while others might have to pay more than $20,000, Bedford Area school officials said.

The more than three hour hearing included testimony from public school administrators from Richland, Bedford, Chestnut Ridge, Everett and Moshannon Valley, a state school board association member and former secretary of Education Gerald Zahorchak, all of whom described the method of funding and overseeing charter schools as a 22 year-old mess.

Per-student costs multiply when those students are identified by charter schools as "special education" needy – a designation public school officials said they have no control over, even though they are paying the bill.

"We had a recent case where a cyber charter school student missed 108 days of school but (that) school still received its payment," Chestnut Ridge Superintendent Mark Kudlawiec said. "Ask yourself, is that the best use of taxpayer dollars?"

Richland School District Superintendent Arnold Nadonley pointed out that Richland had to pay $264,000 last year to 30 students to attend a list of cyber schools that all received failing grades in the School Performance Profile – a statewide benchmark Richland has ranked high on annually in recent years.

"Parents simply don't know the truth ... that these schools have been under-performing since their inception," he said, maintaining that charters continue to receive a growing amount of state-approved funding but aren't being held to the same standards as public school counterparts. "It's disturbing that the state continues to invest in failing institutions."

With enrollment increasing in cyber schooling statewide, school officials noted that ever-growing charter school payments have become one of the public school system's largest annual expenses statewide, ranking it alongside always-unpopular pension costs.

But charter school leaders, including Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School CEO Lawrence Jones Jr., defended that fact, noting the statewide cost reflects the fact more children are choosing charter schools today than ever before – more than 135,000 across the state.

His colleagues noted that the charter school systems' "unique" costs and student demographics aren't being factored in by those who criticize their funding.

Charter schools must send books, computers and other supplies across the state daily – and then provide instant online support to students using it – all of which adds up to "significant" costs, Commonwealth Charter Academy CEO Maurice Flurie said

Charter Choices, Inc. shareholder and accountant Michael Whisman noted that cyber charter school enrollment, on average, is nearly 50 percent low-income, oftentimes students who are years behind in their education.

"A charter school that enrolls a sixth grade student who reads at a 3rd grade level and is then successfully able to move up two grade levels in their reading skills in a single year is nonetheless reported as a (state) failure," he said.

It reflects just one of the inequities charter schools are facing today, Whisman said.

But state Senator Wayne Langerholc, R-Richland, the senate education committee's chairman, questioned some of the group's provided figures Thursday during the hearing – as well as the amount the coalition will spend on advertising – up to $4 million through 2022, they responded.

And several colleagues criticized the charter school executives for not stepping forward and signalling they are willing to address some of their education system's biggest flaws.

Senator James Brewster, an Allegheny County Democrat, suggested the group should open up its books to state audits, even if they aren't required.

And after 22 years, charter schools still aren't state certifying all of their teachers, he pointed out.

"Let your performance sell your schools," Brewster said.

Wednesday's hearing comes as Pennsylvania lawmakers have been taking a closer, statewide look at the charter school system, its funding and accountability. It was held just a day after Gov. Tom Wolf ramped up his criticism of the schools' overall performance and lack of accountability – a move that included executive action to impose new fees for state services and tighten ethics standards.

Langerholc said Wednesday's hearing was necessary for the education committee as its members prepare to draw up their own proposals this fall.

"Our goal is to look at reforms that will improve the quality and accountability of charter schools, control costs and improve financial transparency, and bring greater equality to funding all levels of public education," he said.

The Senate Education Committee is tasked with crafting legislation and recommendations aimed at addressing such issues before sending them to their colleagues for full consideration at the chamber level.

The senators on the committee who spoke Thursday sounded agreeable to the idea of modifying the funding formula – but noted determining how is the hard part.

"We need to develop a model that can stand up objectively," said Senator Patrick Brown, R-Allentown.

David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5053. Follow him on Twitter @TDDavidHurst and Instagram @TDDavidHurst.

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