Most people have heard of charter schools, but not many people know what exactly they are, how they are funded, or how they impact public school districts in Pennsylvania. Charter schools are independent public schools that are exempt from many traditional public-school mandates—such as being governed by a publicly elected school board—and frequently focus their enrollment and specialize in certain areas, like the performing arts. Originally, charter schools were created to encourage the use of innovating teaching methods and increase unique educational opportunities for students. They are free to the students who attend. But while charter schools may seem like a harmless alternative to traditional public schools, the way that Pennsylvania funds its charter schools is wreaking havoc on public school districts.

Pennsylvania law requires school districts to pay tuition to charter schools for every student residing in the district who enrolls in charter schools each year. See 24 Pa. Stat. Section 17-1725-A(a). As such, approximately 90% of charter school funding comes from public school districts. See “Pennsylvania School Boards Association, A Closer Look,” (last visited Jun. 3, 2024). The tuition payments made by school districts are calculated based on a formula set by state law in 2002. Counterintuitively, this formula is not based on what it costs charter schools to provide an education to the students. Rather, it is calculated based on the school districts’ own expenses and expenditures. Specifically, tuition is calculated as: the district’s total expenditures, divided by the district’s average daily membership for the same school year, minus the expenditures for nonpublic school programs; adult education programs; community/junior college programs; student transportation services; special education programs; facilities acquisition, construction and improvement services; and other financing uses. See 24 Pa. Stat. Section 17-1725-A(a); 24 Pa. Stat. Section 25-2501(20).