HARRISBURG, Pa. – Local school district officials in Pennsylvania often claim they are losing out if or when students choose to attend an alternative school, like cyber schools, charter schools or home schools. The days of that argument could be numbered, as school choice continues to gain momentum.

The creation of charter schools is contentious. Local school districts have to follow state guidelines to establish them. Superintendents and school administrators statewide tell school board members that taxpayer money leaves the district when a student opts for a non-traditional school. While that is true, money following the student is not necessarily a detriment to public education.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education reports that “Charter schools will receive funds for operation from both the state and local level.”

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“Funding is provided by removing allocations that are not part of the operating costs of a charter school from the total expenditures per average daily membership of the school district,” the state reports on its web site. “School districts are provided temporary funding for the transitional costs of a district’s students enrolling in a charter school and are provided payments due to the transfer of private school students to public charter schools.”

Ben Scafidi, a professor of economics at Kennesaw State University and fellow at Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, said “let the money follow the student and make it less money to fund the student attending a charter school. In his report, “The Economic Case for School Choice,” Scafidi wrote, “Specifically, school choice programs that allow school districts to retain funding for any fixed costs would not harm the fiscal health of public schools or decrease resources available to students who remain in public schools.”

Variable costs he cited in his report, include: capital expenditures, enterprise operations, food service, general administration, instruction, instructional staff, interest, operations and maintenance, “other” support services, school administration, students supporting, and transportation. Pennsylvania local school boards have decision-making authority over these items.

In his research, Scafidi said in 2009, public schools nationwide spent an “average of $12,450 per student.” According to governing.com, Pennsylvanians in 2011 spent $13,467 per pupil. That was a 3.6 percent increase, up from 2010, when the cost per pupil was $12,995. Pennsylvania continues to pay more than the national average per student.

Scafidi’s report broke the 2009 costs down, revealing that “64 percent of this $12,450 are short-run variable costs ($7,967).” And, the other $4,483 per pupil expenses are short-run fixed costs that states could let school districts retain when they lose a student via school choice.

His conclusion, “Thus, any school choice program where $7,967 per student or less (on average) follows a child to the school of his or her choice improves the fiscal situation of a public school district, on average. And, students who remain in public schools would have more resources devoted to their education.”

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James Paul, senior policy analyst at the Commonwealth Foundation, said “school choice does tend to be a contentious issue” thanks to the efforts of teachers’ unions.

“When it comes to charter schools, current policy dictates that local school districts are tasked with authorizing new charters,” he said. “This creates a clear conflict of interest – districts are authorized to approve their competition – and likely contributes to the animosity between charter and public schools. There is room for charters and public schools in an expanded education marketplace. It does not have to be a zero-sum game. Overall, school choice becomes a pawn when adults are fighting over how to best protect status quo “systems” instead of focusing on what is actually best for students.”

Pennsylvania has over 175 charter schools. Dozens of charter school applicants in Philadelphia were recently denied by the School Reform Commission. The commission approved five new charter schools, but the fight to add more is not over.

“Pennsylvania is one of only a handful of states to have multiple tax credit scholarship programs, which have provided over 400,000 scholarships for students to attend schools of choice since 2001,” Paul said.

Published with permission