Pottstown parent highlights cyber-charter tuition debate

Originally published in The Mercury – February 14, 2020

Debate about traditional public schools versus charter and cyber-charter schools often pits the two sides as absolutes.

But Pottstown parent Karah Hoefel represents all of the above.

The Pottstown native, who recently returned to her hometown after a stint in New Jersey, has her oldest daughter in Exton-based Insight Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School.

Her middle child is a student at Lincoln Elementary School, and her youngest is in the cyber kindergarten run by the Pottstown School District.
“I try to meet my kids wherever they are,” said Hoefel.

For example, “my youngest was ready academically for school. He was already doing simple math, but he was born in August so he would be one of the youngest in the class and he wasn’t ready socially,” Hoefel said.

Hoefel, who was invited to a Friday roundtable with Pennsylvania Education Secretary Pedro Rivera by the school district, said she is happy with the program provided to all three of her students, all of which are funded in large part by Pottstown taxpayers.

“All three are honor roll students,” she said.
So she gets concerned as the rhetoric surrounding current efforts to reform charter funding in Pennsylvania heats up.

Gov. Tom Wolf highlighted charter school funding reform in his Feb. 4 budget address, saying: “Our charter school system is in desperate need of reform. It’s time to close the loopholes, it’s time to establish real standards, and it’s time to level the playing field,” said Wolf. “By doing so, we can continue to provide parents with real choices, we can empower charter schools to focus on their mission of innovation, and we can save $280 million a year that we can put right back into improving our public school system.”

“Some are little more than fronts for private management companies, and the only innovations they’re coming up with involve finding new ways to take money out of the pockets of property taxpayers — like setting up sham online schools or exploiting a loophole in special education funding,” Wolf said.

And hot the heels of that address, state Rep. Joe Ciresi, D-146th Dist., who represents part of Pottstown, said a bill he is sponsoring would set cyber-charter tuition at $9,500 per student per year rather than the much higher amount now paid by local taxpayers.

During Friday’s roundtable Maureen Jampo, business manager for Pottstown’s schools, told Rivera that while “the charter school enrollment of Pottstown School District students has remained relatively flat over the past three years, the total tuition has increased an average of 20 percent per year.

Pottstown is not alone in this dilemma. 

Last year, a study by the Temple University Center on Regional Politics called “A Tale of Haves and Have Nots” concluded that without changing Pennsylvania’s education funding model, 60 percent of all the state’s schools will be in “fiscal stress” within five years.

The report identified the primary drivers of that increasingly permanent divide between rich and poor school districts as charter school tuition, pension and special education costs.

“With state revenues barely covering charter school tuition and special ed and pensions, you’re just pouring water in the glass and pouring all the water out of the glass with nothing left to drink at the local level,” said Timothy Shrom, co-author of the report.

Perhaps in response, education officials at the state and local level, as well as in the Governor’s office, have targeted charter school tuition reform as the first course correction to tackle.

The bill Ciresi is co-sponsoring is part of that effort.

“It doesn’t affect any parents. They can still choose a school for their children,” Ciresi said during an interview prior to the roundtable Friday.

“If we’re able to get this passed, we’re saving $300 million without closing any charter schools without an additional nickel of taxpayer dollars,” Ciresi said.

“We’re just trying to turn off the cash cow spigot that has been in place for 20 years,” Pottstown Schools Superintendent Stephen Rodriguez said in the same interview.

Rodriguez said even modest charter school tuition reform, which Rivera returned to repeatedly in Friday’s interview, would save Pottstown between $1 million and $1.2 million a year.

That one change would go a long way toward closing the $1.5 million shortfall in the district’s draft budget for the 2020/2021 school year, which was discussed publicly for the first time Thursday in the school board’s finance and facilities committee meeting.

“People need to know if that legislation goes through, our budget is close to balanced,” school board member Steve Kline said Thursday night.

But the bill isn’t even into a committee yet and its chances of being brought to the floor of the House for a vote by a House Speaker who is an unabashed champion of school choice, then being approved by the state Senate and signed by Gov. Tom Wolf, who supports the bill, remain murky.

“It’s about responsible school choice. This is our issue moving forward,” said Rivera.

In the meantime, Hoefel said she wants to keep up to date on any potential changes that could affect her children’s schools — all three of them.

“It still seems to me like this could have a big impact and I want to be sure I understand what that is,” Hoefel said.

To learn more about Insight Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, visit https://pa.insightschools.net/

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