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LANGAN: Democrats Want to Cut Funding for PA Special Needs Students

Pennsylvania Democrats are trying to cut funding for special needs students in Pennsylvania public schools. Now, brace yourself—the more you learn, the worse it gets.

While state spending on public schools has soared to $22,000 per student, Gov. Josh Shapiro wants to cut funding to $8,000 for cyber charter students. Many of these students learn from home because they require a level of flexibility and care that a brick-and-mortar school cannot provide.

For example, take Stacy Phillips, who enrolled her children in cyber charter schools. She strongly supports the public school system and even taught special education in the Philadelphia School District for a decade.

But when her daughter entered Central High School and struggled with worsening depression, fear of self-harm, and physical illness, Stacy—as a specialist and a mother—knew her daughter needed a change.

Stacy and her husband transferred her from one public school to another: Agora, a cyber charter that allows students to take classes from home. The new school changed her daughter’s life. Once she felt safe enough to learn, she excelled in the rigorous curriculum, found a healthy social balance, and now attends the community college.

Agora also became a lifesaver for Stacy’s son, who enrolled in sixth grade after the bullying was too much to bear in private school. His speech and behavioral issues escalated, and his school forced second-grade-level coursework on him despite his 10th-grade reading skills.

Attending Agora, his challenges no longer stall his progress.

“All his Agora teachers presume competence and implement everything he needs to believe he can do it and be successful,” Stacy says.

Watching her son flourish in a class of students his age has been a relief and a joy beyond imagination.

But if Shapiro and state lawmakers cut funding, many cyber charters will struggle to support students like the Phillips.

“At a time when everyone is acutely aware of the mental health and trauma needs of students, this proposal would be over a 40 percent cut in funding, suffocating our ability to meet the diverse needs of students in reaching their highest potential,” says Rich Jensen, CEO at Agora Cyber Charter School.

These closures would be devastating, considering Pennsylvania’s 13 cyber charters enroll about 57,000 students. Such drastic cuts would be equivalent to closing the second-largest school district in Pennsylvania. Finding a way to accommodate the individual needs of all those displaced students would be an educational crisis.

Politicians, as usual, talk out of both sides of their mouths. While they push cuts to one sector of public schools (i.e., cyber charters), these same lawmakers demand more money for another (i.e., district schools). However, districts are already flush with $6.8 billion in reserve funds.

Moreover, many lawmakers also propose higher taxes to subsidize spending hikes, despite Pennsylvania already achieving historic education funding. Pennsylvania spends $21,985 per student, making the Keystone State the seventh-highest spender nationally.

Can lawmakers look mothers like Stacy in the eye and claim charter schools, which save taxpayers 27 percent per student, are the source of Pennsylvania’s budget woes?

Of course they can’t. The campaign to defund educational alternatives has nothing to do with fiscal responsibility. Instead, it’s Shapiro’s attempt to appease the more radical elements of his party and his union backers.

Rather than defunding successful alternatives, districts should figure out why students leave their schools in the first place.

Parents don’t casually pull their kids out of school. When students enroll in a cyber charter school, it is rarely the first stop on their educational journey. Most likely, their local district schools have already failed them somehow. Meanwhile, in the 87 percent of districts that lack a brick-and-mortar charter school, cyber charters offer the only tuition-free alternative for students seeking to escape.

And make no mistake: Families are looking for an escape. Since the pandemic began, almost 51,000 students have left their school districts for alternatives, including 11,000 students in Philadelphia alone.

If lawmakers are willing to deny help to the most vulnerable students in the state, they are going to need a better answer for moms like Stacy.

Claiming to support public schools while slashing cyber charters will not suffice.

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