Report: 75% of Pennsylvania’s public school districts say charter schools bust their budget

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Photo: pvproductions/Freepik

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association released its annual State of Education report last week highlighting the challenges facing public school districts in the state based on a survey of administrators, school districts as well as public data.

The PSBA report found that of the public schools that responded to its survey, many cited charter school tuition payments as a main source of budget pressure. Over 75% said the district’s top budget pressure was “charter school tuition payments.”

“​​Cyber charter expenses alone are bankrupting our school district,” one anonymous respondent is quoted as saying in the report. “We would not have a financial problem without this impact.”

“Continued inaction to reel in the payments to cyber charter schools is hurting each and every school district in the commonwealth,” said another.

Brian Hayden, CEO of PA Cyber Charter School, told Chalkboard Review that he disagreed with the notion that charter schools charge tuition like a college or private school. Charter schools receive reimbursement funds from public school districts based on state law, he said.

The state’s 500 public school districts fill out a PDE-363 form delineating the cost of educating a child, both for regular and special education, Hayden said. Public schools can withhold a list of expenses and charter schools receive a portion of the rate.

“We don’t determine that amount,” Hayden said. “We just get reimbursed. If those rates go up, it’s because the school districts are spending more money to educate a kid.”

Andrew Christ, senior director of government affairs for PSBA and author of its State of Education report, told Chalkboard Review that there are flaws in Pennsylvania’s 1997 law.

Christ also said that charter school tuition payments are hard to predict from year to year because they don’t know how many district students will attend a charter school until after they are enrolled.

“Our charter school law treats cyber charter schools the same as brick and mortar charter schools when it comes to tuition being paid to them,” Christ said. “And we know that cyber charter schools don’t have the same level of expenditures as a brick-and-mortar school.”

But Hayden said that just because cyber schools don’t have buses or a cafeteria, they are responsible for offering an entire student experience, and, at an ideological level, education money should follow students wherever they go. 

“Philosophically, these kids’ families are paying tax dollars to educate their kids,” Hayden said. “There should be nothing wrong with that money following the kid.”

Ultimately, Hayden says the choice to attend a cyber charter school isn’t just about the virtual setting, but a dissatisfaction with their local public school. 

“Many, many of our families – they don’t want a program within the school that they attended,” Hayden said. “If they’re leaving the school, they don’t like the school. It’s not the environment that they’re learning in, it’s the school district.”

At a practical level, Hayden said, the two largest expenses for Pennsylvania public school districts also apply to the cyber charter school he runs: personnel costs and retirement, including pensions.

The PSBA report highlighted that mandatory pension costs are driving up education spending in Pennsylvania. Of the $17,142 spent on Pennsylvania students, $5,656 goes toward employee benefits, making up 33% of student expenditures. 

Only Illinois saw a higher percentage, 33.2%, go toward employee benefits which include pensions, the report found.

Brendan Clarey
Brendan Clarey is K-12 editor at Chalkboard Review. Reach him at

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