HARRISBURG, Pa. (ErieNewsNow) - Today, school choice advocates rallied for equal funding and less barriers to public charter school enrollment. School choice and charter funding is, and has been, a topic for debate at the state level. 

Charter institutions have become very popular over the last 30 years. School choice advocates say charter institutions provide a unique approach to education that meets the needs of individual students, like Olivia Clark-Ortiz, an eleven-year-old charter student. 

“Choice just really gives me inspiration on what I want to do,” said Olivia. 

Olivia says her charter school helps her explore and pursue what she's passionate about.  

“I really like theater and art, it brings out a really fun, creative side of me and has a really good impact,” said Olivia.  

Olivia’s mom, Amber, agrees. She says every parent deserves a choice when it comes to education.  

“Not every school is right for every child. There's not a cookie cutter approach, or there shouldn't be, to education,” said Clark. “Just like we're able to choose who we vote for and choose what home we live in, what town we live in, we should be able to choose as parents where we want to send our children,” she added.   

But advocates say charter enrollment caps and a lottery-based application process are limiting choices for thousands of parents and students who feel left behind. 

“Students should not have to win the lottery to access the education that meets their needs,” said Marc LeBlonde, Director of Policy for Ed Choice. 

“It just saddens me that that these caps, that are imposed by not only our school district but others, are preventing parents from at least having that choice,” said Clark.   

The debate over school choice largely revolves around funding. Charters require public dollars from school districts. Critics say even though charters are publicly funded, they operate privately, with little transparency. Some choice advocates believe more funding all around is necessary, but that dollars should follow the individual student. 

“Personally, I believe that all schools need more money, but we can't cut our charter schools. I believe in per-pupil funding, which basically means that each child has a certain amount of funding that follows them to be educated. The funds should just follow the child,” said Dr. Anne Clark, the CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.   

Dr. Clarke says both traditional publics and charters can coexist. However, she says there are certain barriers that need to be addressed to help more families choose, like enrollment caps and equal funding. Some lawmakers disagree and say that caps are one of the few tools that school districts have to limit spending on charters. 

“It is one of the few controls that our local school districts have to maintain the growth of charter schools,” said House Education Committee Chairman Peter Schweyer (D-Lehigh). “My children are students in the Allentown School district. We pay $96 million a year in local property taxes and $71 million of our funding go to charters. $3 out of every $4 that I pay in property taxes goes to a charter school, not to my kids. The only real control that our school districts have on the growth of brick and mortar charter schools, are caps,” he added. 

Rep. Schweyer says the rapid growth of charter institutions has outpaced their original intention in Pennsylvania's 30-year-old old charter law.  

“The original goal of a charter school was to provide a different type of education, not be in direct competition with your traditional school district,” said Schweyer, adding that the growth, in addition to financial support for charters being eliminated in previous administrations, has placed a heavy burden on property taxpayers and local school districts. 

“The hundreds of millions of dollars a year that go to charter schools to educate our children, both brick and mortar and cyber, is really the number one issue. How are we paying for them?  Is it really fair for us to continue to rely on local property taxes when local school districts have virtually no control over the charters, especially the cyber charters, and is there a better way to do it,” Schweyer asked. 

Schweyer says a lot needs to be examined closely, specifically with cyber charters and funding for students with special needs. 

“We have to take a really hard look on their governance structure. Everything from how they're providing field trips, and most notably, most egregiously, are they serving students that have IEPs- those are students with special education needs- and are they serving them, are they gaming the system to grab more and more tuition dollars from our local schools to support students that may not need an IEP,” said Schweyer. 

“When we're looking at our cyber schools, there's a lot of things that you have to consider. They are not required to put on their website their graduation rates, their PSSA scores.  There are many instances where a cyber charter will give out tickets to a Phillies game and call that a field trip,” said Schweyer. “Parents absolutely have the right to be involved in their kid's education and parents absolutely have a right to want what's best for their kids, but parents also cannot be tricked by the shiniest object,” he added. 

Advocates say charters are producing better results at the same or even lower cost than traditional publics. Schweyer says that may be true in some cases, but not all.  

“We shouldn't just allow privatization of public education based on some really good performing schools when so many of them are at or below grade level,” said Schweyer. 

Although there is agreement among lawmakers that reform is necessary, finding a compromise so that charters and traditional publics could peacefully coexist, may be easier said than done.

“We're winning this battle step by step because we are doing the right things for our kids and our future here in the Commonwealth. That's what it always needs to be about.  If we're not fighting for the opportunities for our kids and what's in their best interest, I would ask then what are we even fighting for and what's the point,” said Sen. Scott Martin (R-Lancaster), Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. 

"I don't care whether it’s a charter school or traditional public school, if you are not providing for these children, you shouldn't be in the business of educating children and you shouldn't get paid for it,” said Sen. Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia/Delaware) at today’s rally. “This is not a debate about charters versus neighborhood traditional schools. None of that is real. This is an artificial argument about who controls the money, who controls the power, who gets to be educated and who does not. That’s what this argument is about,” he added.