‘Free’ tuition: A look at the cost of public education

Educators push for funding reform

Editor’s note: This is the first article in a series exploring the relationship between traditional public schools and charter schools in Pennsylvania.

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LEWISTOWN — There is no such thing as free education.

According to the most recent data available, it cost an estimated $4,051 to educate a regular education student in the Mifflin County School District during the 2014-2015 school year, including government subsidies based on average daily membership.

In the same year, it cost $7,414.97 to educate a student who lived within the district and opted to enroll at a charter or cyber charter school.

Both payments came out of taxpayers’ pockets.

Pennsylvania public schools, including charter and cyber charter options, are funded through a combination of federal, state and local tax dollars. Traditional school districts receive funds from those channels directly, while charter schools are funded through tuition payments made by those districts.

MCSD Superintendent James Estep said charter and cyber charter schools are an important element of school choice, but said the law is in need of substantial reform.

Charter tuition is determined through a formula based on what it costs to educate a student within the public district where they reside. This cost is calculated by dividing the district’s total expenditures by its average daily membership.

Students do not pay tuition to attend charter schools; tuition for Mifflin County residents who enroll in charter schools is paid by MCSD.

At first glance, the formula seems it would be equitable. However, school leaders say the system does not reflect the actual cost necessary to educate students.

Estep and three of his colleagues, Dr. David Baugh, superintendent of Centennial School District; Dr. Brett Gilliland, former superintendent of Mount Union Area School District; and Dr. Mark DiRocco, executive director of Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, published a white paper detailing what they call a “deeply-flawed assumption that the same amount of money can fund two separate and distinct systems of education.”

According to the paper, there are numerous expenditures in a sending district’s budget — such as gifted education, extracurricular opportunities, transportation and tax collection — that are not reflected in charter tuition costs.

Education costs are bundled together to calculate the tuition rate, the paper states, even though brick-and-mortar charter schools do not incur the same expenses, and cyber charter schools operate with very little infrastructure.

“The result is a windfall for the charter schools and a deficit for traditional public schools, particularly for those with a higher concentration of charter students,” the paper states.

There are other reasons current funding procedures are in question.

Each month, school districts receive invoices from charter schools for collection of tuition payments. It’s a process Steve Fleck, of New Day Charter School, calls “very antagonistic.” Fleck is CEO of the school, which has brick-and-mortar locations in Mifflintown and Huntingdon.

“Districts may view these outflows negatively, as it is perceived as their money going out of the district with no benefit in return, in contrast to expenditures for services and supplies,” he said.

Like other public educators, Fleck said reform is necessary, but his reasons differ from those of educators in traditional districts.

Because tuition rates are specific to each sending district, a single charter school is paid different rates for its aggregate student enrollment. Fleck said charter schools do not levy taxes, so are unable to increase revenues to reflect rising costs. If a charter experiences a funding shortfall, it relies on reserves to weather the storm, he said.

“My opinion is that the current funding mechanism for students enrolled in Pennsylvania public charter schools needs to be overhauled,” he said.

Upcoming articles will delve deeper into the change MCSD, New Day Charter and other school leaders want to see. Follow-up stories will also include a more detailed look at the way public schools are funded and the data illustrating academic achievement of various subgroups.

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