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Pa’s urban school districts call for change; say state funding, charter laws crippling them

Philadelphia Inquirer logo Philadelphia Inquirer 12/5/2019 By Maddie Hanna, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Shirley Ann Jackson et al. sitting and looking at the camera: From left, Sara Aiello and Maria Loebig-Haberle, Norristown Area School District teachers, and Ericka Wharton and Melissa Retano, parents of district students, listen to speakers during a news conference Thursday , Dec. 5, 2019,  calling for charter reform at the Norristown Area School District. © HEATHER KHALIFA/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS From left, Sara Aiello and Maria Loebig-Haberle, Norristown Area School District teachers, and Ericka Wharton and Melissa Retano, parents of district students, listen to speakers during a news conference Thursday , Dec. 5, 2019, calling for charter reform at the Norristown Area School District.

As the Norristown Area School District prepares next year’s budget, Superintendent Christopher Dormer anticipates asking local taxpayers to pay more — again.

The Montgomery County district has repeatedly raised taxes, but with nearly three-quarters of its students considered economically disadvantaged, “we simply can’t generate the kind of revenue that our wealthier, suburban neighbors can,” Dormer said.

Adding to the district’s frustrations, an increasing share of its budget is beyond its control — driven, in part, by rising costs for students attending charter schools, which are paid by local school districts based on enrollment.

Norristown leaders, parents, teachers and students on Thursday called for immediate changes to a school funding system they described as inequitable and crippling for urban schools in particular.

The district was one of 13 urban school districts across the state — including Upper Darby and Pottstown — that held press conferences Thursday to draw attention to funding disparities facing districts that are also burdened with increasing costs for charters each year. The conferences were timed to coincide with the anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycotts sparked by Rosa Parks

“Children of poverty and of color are losing out on opportunities," Dormer said in Norristown, where students of color make up 85% of the district’s enrollment. “We’ve effectively created a segregated school system.”

Their push comes nearly four months after Gov. Tom Wolf announced a plan to overhaul Pennsylvania’s charter school law, calling for greater accountability and transparency for the publicly funded but independently run schools.

Gov. Tom Wolf pledges to change charter-school policy, says more accountability neededSince then, the state Department of Education has established fees for charter schools seeking the department’s help in resolving payment disputes with school districts, and moved forward with regulatory changes — including plans to require public audits of charter management companies and better define fiscal and academic standards for charters.

But proposals to change how charter schools are funded require legislative approval, a hurdle for the Democratic governor. Republican lawmakers, who control the Legislature, have been supportive of charters, which they view as needed alternatives to traditional public schools, particularly in cities like Philadelphia.

Charter advocates called Thursday’s press conferences “misguided."

“We agree that state lawmakers should reform school funding, especially the gap between wealthy and poor school districts, but taking funding from public charter schools will hurt the families that this organization says it wants to help,” said Ana Meyers, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.

While Pennsylvania changed its school-funding formula several years ago to steer more money toward poor school districts, the changes only apply to a portion of what the state spends on public education. A lawsuit against the state over school funding is pending, highlighting wide disparities between wealthy and poor districts. But lawmakers have not endorsed a redistribution of funding.

Some Republicans have been advocating for changes to the state’s charter school system, including cyber charters, which draw students — and dollars — from school districts across Pennsylvania and whose students, as a whole perform poorly on tests.

Dormer said Norristown isn’t trying to attack individual charter schools.

“This is about a flawed system,” he said.

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