AT LEAST SOME PROTECTION AGAINST CHARTER SCHOOL SUBSIDY PAYMENTS

The long awaited Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision on whether a School District has to pay for a student to attend a Charter or Cyber Charter School’s kindergarten when the student would be too young to attend the District’s program was finally issued on November 23, 2011.  For public school districts hit hard by subsidy payments to Charter Schools, the Supreme Court’s decision that payment in this scenario was not required comes as welcome relief. 

In the case of Slippery Rock Area School District v. Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, parents had enrolled their four year old child in a cyber charter school’s kindergarten.  However, the public school district’s minimum age for kindergarteners was five years.  The School District filed an objection to the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s (PDE) deduction of funds from theSchool District’s state subsidy for the four year old’s enrollment in the charter school’s kindergarten program. The charter school filed a Motion to Dismiss the objection which was granted by the Secretary of PDE.  The School District appealed the matter to Commonwealth Court, but the Commonwealth Court agreed with PDE, partially on the basis that the Charter School Law’s intent was to “provide parents and pupils with expanded choices in the types of educational opportunities that are available within the public school system,” and therefore, the General Assembly “specifically intended that the trustees would sometimes, perhaps often, exercise the options given them regarding discretionary programs in a manner different from that of the local school districts.  It would frustrate this purpose if the school districts were required to fund only those programs of theCharterSchool which mirrored the programs offered by theSchool District.”  Based upon this rationale, theCommonwealth Court required the public school district to compensate theCharterSchool for the four year old who was enrolled in its kindergarten program.

On appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the Supreme Court reversed theCommonwealth Courtand PDE and held that the public school district did not have a duty to fund the education of students who chose to enroll in theCyberCharterSchoolprior to the public school district’s minimum age for its kindergarten program.  In making this decision, the Supreme Court held that when kindergarten is provided, it is the public school district’s Board of School Directors who sets the minimum entry age for admission into its kindergarten program.  A child is entitled to enroll in public schools of their district of residence only when the child meets the school district’s minimum entrance age to kindergarten.  Before such time, the District bears no obligation to educate the child and, by extension, bears no obligation to fund educational programs for the child.  Accordingly, while a cyber charter school may set its own entrance age for kindergarten, theSchool Districtdoes not have the commensurate obligation to pay where the cyber charter school’s policy does not align with that of the school district.

Although the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision on this issue comes as a welcome relief to public school districts who are faced with increasing reductions to their state subsidy for funding of cyber and “brick and mortar” charter schools, PDE issued a statement on January 4, 2012 that it will continue to process subsidy deductions for 4-year old kindergarten students for any time period prior to the Supreme Court’s decision on November 23, 2011 and will not refund any deductions to school districts for that time period.  However, moving forward PDE required that charter schools not include 4-year olds if the school district of residence did not provide a 4 year old kindergarten program and placed the responsibility on school districts to file objections if a charter school included 4-year olds when no such program was offered.

PA Cyber Charter School has now issued requests to all districts to provide copies of their enrollment policies.  It is anticipated that PA Cyber will look for any basis in the policies to continue to receive subsidy deductions for 4-year olds.  Therefore, existing enrollment policies should be carefully reviewed to determine whether early enrollment provisions may expose your school district to continued subsidy deductions.

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