HARRISBURG, Pa. (Erie News Now) – Wednesday, school choice, and public charter advocates rallied for more education opportunities and for the needs of individual students.
There are over 170 charter institutions operating in Pennsylvania, both brick and mortar and cyber, all of which are largely funded by public school districts but independently operated.
Over 400 school boards around the commonwealth are calling for charter reform, and say funding charters is impacting their ability to provide a quality public school education for students.
School choice is a big topic of debate in Harrisburg, and an issue some gubernatorial candidates are campaigning on. But today’s rally was an opportunity for the over 100 students and charter advocates to share just how important school choice is to them.
“I love my teachers,” said Terrell Vaughn, a student at the Pennsylvania Steam Academy in Harrisburg.
If you ask Terrell and his friends Kinsley and James what they love most about their charter school, they’ll tell you it’s their teachers and the unique opportunities they have to pursue their passions.
“I love my charter school because most schools don’t get to have what we have in our school,” said James Lyles, Terrell’s classmate.
It’s the unique opportunities like STEAM, science, technology, engineering, arts and math. STEAM integrates a STEM education with the arts, and expands ways for students to learn.
Advocates say public charters include STEAM, and many other opportunities for families to choose.
“Across the state of Pennsylvania, there’re schools who are studying STEAM and business, performing arts, agriculture, I mean, I think that speaks about what Pennsylvania is,” said Dr. Anne Clark, CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools. “We’re diverse, we’re inclusive, we look for innovation, and that’s what our charter schools are providing,” she added.
“They’re able to choose what fits for the individual. Every student needs something different,” said David Overton Jr., a character education coach at Lincoln Charter School in York.
Overton works with students on character education and development. He says things like social and emotional exercises in small groups, and talking about feelings, hope and integrity are vital. Given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students, Overton says these types of exercises are crucial for the mental health of students, as well as their ability to learn.
“It’s tremendous. I mean, we have kids that are coming in, dealing with so many different types of issues,” said Overton. “That brings happiness, quality of education, it just brings everybody together to be able to cope with what’s going on outside of the building,” Overton added.
Overton’s role symbolizes what advocates say a charter school education is all about, focusing on the needs of the individual student.
“At the end of the day, it should just be kid focused,” said Brandon Reichart, a math and science teacher at Souderton Charter School Collaborative. “Our parents deserve a chance to send their kid where they think they’re going to be able to succeed, and in an educational environment that makes sense for them,” Reichart added.
However, the debate over school choice in Harrisburg is driven by the way in which charters are funded, and the amount per student that public school districts have to pay for students to attend. According to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA), over 84% of school boards across the commonwealth have called for charter reform.
In April, PSBA said school districts are estimated to spend $3 billion in mandatory tuition payments to charter schools. In a press release, PSBA said “school districts will send hundreds of millions of dollars more to charter schools than are needed” due to flaws with the 25-year-old law used to determine charter school funding.
With an increase in students seeking charter education, came a rise in tuition costs for school districts. PSBA says state funding has not kept up with the expansion of charter opportunities, forcing many school districts to make budget cuts or become more reliant on local property taxes.
Advocates for fair funding of public schools even filed a lawsuit against the commonwealth to address funding concerns, which began in November. That trial concluded in March with a decision expected this summer.
School choice advocates say it’s time to rethink the system, and that the state has a responsibility to resolve the issue, without limiting opportunities for their students.
“How do we continue to innovate and almost, you know, how do we continue to duplicate that and find the success at other venues, is really the big thing that the state should be looking at, and understanding why are parents leaving public schooling to go to charters,” said Reichart.
“We just want our students to be funded equally and we just want to make sure that we can provide high quality education to all of our students,” said Dr. Clark. “It’s good for our students, our parents, our staff, our school leaders and our communities,” she added.
Overton says the benefits to rethinking education go far beyond the classroom.
“You can’t change communities without changing education,” said Overton.
Maybe the most important benefit, helping students like Kinsley, Terrell and James discover what they want to be when they grow up.
“A teacher, or rapper,” said Terrell.
“I won’t be a teacher, a rapper. I want to be an astronaut and I want to be a nurse,” said Kinsley Ervin, a classmate of Terrell and James at the PA STEAM Academy.
“I want to be like Lil Durk,” said James, referring to a popular American rapper.
This upcoming gubernatorial election can have a significant impact on the future of school choice and education funding. In his budget proposal, Governor Tom Wolf unveiled a charter reform package, which is expected to save public school districts around the commonwealth hundreds of millions of dollars, according to the PSBA, if it is approved.