The cafeteria awaits students for lunch at Capital Area School for the Arts in Strawberry Square.
Demystifying Charter Schools in Pennsylvania
Story and Photos by Deborah Lynch
n 1997, under Governor Tom Ridge, charter schools were created Brick-and-mortar school charters must be reviewed every five through the Pennsylvania Department of Education to provide years by the local school district. The charter schools must justify school choice with increased learning opportunities that included their existence by showing how they’ve managed their money and different and innovative teaching methods for all students. Local school how students have performed academically. The state department boards were granted authority to review and act upon applications for of education reviews the charters for cyber charters every five years. traditional charter schools while the Department of Education was The state established a Charter School Appeal Board (CAB), which can given that role with cyber charter schools. review decisions to deny charter applications or rule to not renew or Since then, many charter schools have been established across the revoke a charter. state. Charter schools are public schools, which means tuition comes For every child from a school district who attends a charter school, from federal, state, and local school district money (taxpayers). It the local school district must pay the tuition to that charter school. doesn’t matter what charter school a student attends, where it’s located, Pennsylvania provides some money per student to a school district, or whether it is brick-and-mortar or cyber, a school district will pay so, theoretically, that money would follow the student to a charter the same tuition. Tuition does differ between non-special education school. The amount a charter school receives is based on a statutory and special education students, with the funding formula, according to the state tuition for students with IEPs being much department of education. The original In the Harrisburg area higher. Tuition varies by school district 1997 charter law did not consider or and is calculated with a special formula anticipate cyber charters. alone, five brick-andbased on budgeted total expenditures of Sometimes, the allocation doesn’t mortar charter schools a school district — whatever is stipulated match the cost because state allocations as the cost for a district to educate a child. are based on a formula of budgeted will be operating this Instead of being governed by elected total expenditures of a school district — fall, along with several school board members, charter schools whatever is stipulated as the cost for a cyber charter schools. must be run by a non-profit entity district to educate a child. That means governed by boards of trustees, who are some school districts must pay more than appointed. Most charter schools use others for their students to attend charter lotteries for admissions. That means that admission is completely schools. In the Harrisburg area, in 2020-21, the charter school tuition random (although preference can be given for students within for a non-special education student ranged from $10,000/student the school district that authorizes the charter school), and when to about $13,000/student. That tuition increased to between about enrollments are met, that’s it. $23,000/student to $31,880/student for special education students. In the Harrisburg area alone, five brick-and-mortar charter schools Education funding in Pennsylvania can be complex to figure out as will be operating this fall, along with several cyber charter schools. much of it is determined by local school taxes. School districts do also Those schools are Capital Area School for the Arts, Infinity Charter receive some state and federal funding. Harrisburg School District’s School, Premier Arts and Science Charter School, Sylvan Heights Science 2021-22 budget includes $2,465,661 as part of the state’s Level Up Charter School, and the newly approved PA STEAM Charter School. The equity supplement. The district applauds this funding, which it says is bulk of the brick-and- mortar charter schools are in Philadelphia. The necessary to help Harrisburg close the funding gap. Harrisburg area also offers two cyber charter schools: Commonwealth “Due to chronic underfunding at the state level, school districts across Charter Academy Charter School and Reach Cyber Charter School. Pennsylvania must rely on local wealth – property taxes – to fund their 34 HARRISBURG MAGAZINE SEPTEMBER 2021
Harrisburg Magazine's September 2021 Issue.