Finance experts in Pennsylvania warned that the costs of charter schools and cyber charters threaten to bankrupt as many as 500 school districts. 

Finance experts with the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) said lawmakers must change the way charter costs are assessed to local school districts or accept that some school districts are not going to be able to continue to bear the cost of paying hundreds of thousands, and in some cases millions, of dollars in charter school tuition.

The call for change comes as the General Assembly weighs a variety of bills aimed at altering the way the state regulates and finances charter and cyber charter schools that now enroll about 140,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Hannah Barrick, of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officers, said charter school costs, which are borne almost entirely by local school districts, totaled $1.8 billion last year and accounted for 37 cents of every new dollar raised in local property taxes.

In some school districts, the costs are even higher.

Enrollment in Pennsylvania’s charter schools grew dramatically over the last decade, increasing from about 78,000 students in 2009-10 to 140,000 this year.

Along with that growth, school districts have seen the bill for charter school tuition grow by double digits five out of the past eight years.

Charter schools, promoted as a free option for public school students whose families wish to look outside their districts, are funded by the students’ local school districts. Tuition is calculated using a complex formula that requires each district to pay charter school fees based on the local district’s cost per student per year. Across the state, those figures ranged from $7,600 to $18,500 per mainstream student to $15,100 to $48,000 per special education student.

Pennsylvania has about 1.7 million students. Supplying choices for 140,000 students (8%) in schools that are of mixed quality threatens to bankrupt the state’s school finance system.

Has it occurred to the lawmakers in Pennsylvania that running a dual school system, both publicly funded, is an insane idea?