Advocates rally for reform bills to save millions in school taxes

PERKIOMEN — Legislators, school superintendents, school board members and education advocates joined a press conference at Perkiomen Valley’s Evergreen Elementary School to advocate for charter school and school funding reform to stem property tax increases in Pennsylvania.

State Rep. Joe Ciresi, D-146th Dist., is proposing bills to relieve cost pressures on public schools and lowering property taxes through changes in how school funding is distributed, reforming the charter school law, and making a significant one-time investment toward school pension liabilities .

Ciresi has introduced legislation to give public schools the support they need and provide meaningful property tax relief:

HB 1595 would fully implement the fair funding formulas for basic and special education, better aligning funding to current needs.

In 2016, the General Assembly established the student-weighted Basic Education Funding formula to direct money to school districts based on certain factors that include student enrollment, student population needs, wealth of the school district, and more. Similarly, the Special Education Funding formula, established in 2014-15, directs state dollars to districts that have the greatest need for additional resources based on the cost of each special education student. Each formula allows districts to have more transparency and predictability on funding.

However, the overwhelming majority of state basic education funding and special education funding is directed via the ‘hold harmless’ clause, which allows a school district to receive no less than the same amount of state basic education dollars that it received previously, “rather than being distributed fully under the newer and fairer formulas,” Ciresi said. “As such, school districts — especially those with growing enrollments — are forced to rely more heavily on property taxes to fund operations, consequently widening the gap between poor and rich districts.”

“We can’t say we’ve ‘fixed’ education funding just by having a fair funding formula unless we actually use it,” said Ciresi, who serves on the House Education Committee and spent 12 years on the Spring-Ford School Board, three of them as its president.

“It’s time to commit ourselves to using real data based on actual need to fund education, which is the reason we created these formulas in the first place,” Ciresi said in a press release. “HB 1595 would put Pennsylvania back on track to fairly distributing education dollars so that we can achieve equitable funding for every student.”

Another bill, HB 272, would enact comprehensive charter school reform, saving $199 million by setting a data-based statewide cyber charter tuition rate and $174 million by funding special education in charter schools through the tiered, need-based formula used for public schools, according to a release from his office.

The plan, part of Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget proposal, holds low-performing charter schools accountable to improve the quality of education, protects taxpayers by reining in escalating charter school costs, and increases the transparency of for-profit companies that run many charter schools.

State Rep.  Tracy Pennycuick, R-147th Dist., speaks at Monday's rally.(Image from screenshot)
State Rep. Tracy Pennycuick, R-147th Dist., speaks at Monday’s rally.(Image from screenshot)

“Their students are not graduating at the same rate as brick and mortar schools, and why is that?” said state Rep. Tracy Pennycuick, R-147th Dist. “We don’t know what’s going on in their school board meetings. Those are not publicly elected school boards at cyber charter schools. their meetings are held in private, and yet they’re spending taxpayer dollars.”

She said “educational standards and milestones are not publicly accessible,” adding, “and for those cyber charter schools that are not performing, time for you to go from Pennsylvania. Every student has potential. Not every student has an opportunity. We need to change that.”

Perkiomen Vally Schools Superintendent Barbara Russell speaks at Monday's rally.(Image from screenshot)
Perkiomen Valley Schools Superintendent Barbara Russell speaks at Monday’s rally.(Image from screenshot)

Since 2015, the Perkiomen Valley School District has seen a 50 percent increase in what it contributes to charter school tuition, said Superintendent Barbara Russell.

Norristown Schools Superintendent Christopher Dormer said his district has seen a similar increase, “and our response to that has been three-fold, raise taxes, cut programs and cut staff. More money goes out, those schools, thanks to this imbalance, can enrich themselves and my students have less opportunity.”

Perkiomen Valley School Board President Jason Saylor speaks during Monday's rally.(Image from screenshot)
Perkiomen Valley School Board President Jason Saylor speaks during Monday’s rally.(Image from screenshot)

Last year, taxpayers spent $2.1 billion on charter schools, including more than $600 million on cyber schools. This year, the burden on taxpayers will increase by more than $400 million. Between 2013 and 2019, 44 cents of every $1 of new property taxes went to charter schools, according to the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials.

“Our goal is to make each generation better than the previous generation and we’re not currently doing that,” said Jason Saylor, president of the Perkiomen Valley School Board. “I urge the House speaker, I urge the Senate, and our governor, to do what’s needed, not what’s politically best.”

State Rep.  Matt Bradford, D-70th Dist., speaks at Monday's rally at Perkiomen Valley High School.(Image from screenshot)
State Rep. Matt Bradford, D-70th Dist., speaks at Monday’s rally at Perkiomen Valley High School.(Image from screenshot)

“Simply put, there should be no constituency for the status quo that protects a system that we know is allocating funds in a way that is inappropriate, inequitable and, quite frankly, opens the door for the worst kind of abuse of taxpayer money,” said state Rep. Matt Bradford, D-70th Dist. and the Democratic chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

“The cyber charters are so over-funded right now that they can spend millions of dollars on advertising,” said state Rep. Joe Webster, D-150th Dist.

State Rep.  Napoleon Nelson, D-154th dist., speaks Monday at the school funding reform rally.(Image from screenshot)
State Rep. Napoleon Nelson, D-154th dist., speaks Monday at the school funding reform rally.(Image from screenshot)

Before being elected to the state house, state Rep. Napoleon Nelson, D-154th Dist., was a tax collector “in the tenth highest-taxed district in Pennsylvania.” He said he sees one of his responsibilities as being able “to ensure I can look our seniors in the eye, who are worried they’re not going to be able to live their last days in the homes that have been in their families for generations because they see property taxes continue to go up.”

“There’s a straight line from over-payments to cyber charters and over-payments for special education to all charters to property tax increases,” said Lawrence Feinberg, director of the Keystone Center for Charter Change at the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. “School districts across the state are struggling to keep up with growing charter costs, and are forced to raise taxes and cut staffing and programs.”

Lawrence Feinberg speaks Monday about the need to reform Pennsylvania's charter school tuition formula.(Image from screenshot)
Lawrence Feinberg speaks Monday about the need to reform Pennsylvania’s charter school tuition formula.(Image from screenshot)

The current process for special education funding requires school districts to pay charter schools using the assumption that 16 percent of students get special education. As a result, some charters are vastly overpaid for services they do not provide, leaving special education students in school districts and other charter schools with less funding. A fact-based formula, using data and not assumptions, could save Pennsylvania taxpayers as much as $99 million per year, according to the governor’s projections.

The 433 of Pennsylvania’s 500 school boards that adopted a resolution calling for charter school tuition reform “are not calling for the elimination of charter schools,” Feinberg said. “Rather, they are calling on the general assembly to meaningfully revise the flawed charter school funding system.”

Pottsgrove School Board member Charles Nippert speaks about the need for charter school tuition reform.(Image from screenshot)
Pottsgrove School Board member Charles Nippert speaks about the need for charter school tuition reform.(Image from screenshot)

“Funds are being diverted from our children’s education to pay a bill that I can’t explain,” said Pottsgrove School Board member Charles Nippert.

Providing online education costs the same regardless of where the student lives, but cyber schools charge school districts between $9,170 and $22,300 per student. Establishing a single statewide rate ensures that school districts are not charged more than $9,500 per regular education student, reflecting the actual cost of online education by higher-performing cyber schools, would save Pennsylvania school districts $130 million per year, according to the governor.

Ciresi said if these two bills were enacted and the savings directed toward lowering property taxes, taxes would be reduced by $272 per household for the Perkiomen Valley School District, $279 for the Spring-Ford Area School District, $183 for the Pottsgrove School District, and $6,993 for the Pottstown School District.

According to the school advocacy group Children First, which organized Monday’s event, charter school fees are projected to increase by $1.7 billion over the next three years. Charter school fees are required to be paid by local school districts and are the fastest-growing cost in the state’s education system, driving up property taxes.

“The current law that determines charter school funding is broken and we need to fix it,” Ciresi said. “Right now, taxpayers are dramatically overpaying for charter schools. Communities should not and financially cannot — especially given rising inflation — continue to shoulder increasing overpayments to charter schools.”

Norristown Schools Superintendent Christopher Dormer speaks at Monday's rally.(Image from screenshot)
Norristown Schools Superintendent Christopher Dormer speaks at Monday’s rally.(Image from screenshot)

In addition to paying for charter school fees, school districts are also facing rising costs for special education services and payments into the Public School Employees’ Retirement System.

Ciresi has also called on the legislature to use the state budget surplus this year to make a $1-billion one-time payment towards the state PSERS liability, which would net savings of hundreds of millions of dollars in subsequent years by reducing public employer payments.

“Now’s the time to be fiscally responsible and make a one-time investment to reduce pension liability and save taxpayers money for years to come,” Ciresi said.

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