School officials from five Southwestern Pennsylvania school districts gathered Friday for an online press conference to discuss the impact of inflated charter and cyberschool tuition payments in their districts and to call for changes to the commonwealth’s charter school laws.
The press conference was hosted by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.
Tim Kantor, superintendent of Ligonier Valley School District in Westmoreland County, said the school district has paid $17,961,968 in cyber and charter school tuition since the 2011-12 school year.
During that period, the school district – which has an operating budget of about $33.7 million – has raised taxes by 16.9 mills for about $24.7 million, with 72% of those tax increases going toward cyberschool costs.
Kantor said cyberschool tuition accounts for the fourth-largest expense in Ligonier Valley’s budget, trailing only salary and benefits, transportation, and debt service.
Kantor also shared the disparity between the amount of 2021-22 ESSER funds (federal funds provided to address the educational impact of the COVID-19 pandemic) that Ligonier Valley School District received per student – $2,386.04 – compared to PA Cyber School, which received $9,576.75 per student.
“I don’t want to say cyberschools might not have needed additional funding from the government, but they were not tasked with changing the way we educate children, or to reinvent how to educate children,” said Kantor. “Cyberschools were set up for virtual learning; our school district was not.”
Pennsylvania school districts are spending more than $2.6 billion in taxpayer money on mandatory payments to cyber and brick-and-mortar charter schools, according to the PSBA.
The costs of charter schools for school districts continue to grow significantly each year, with charter tuition paid by school districts up 327% over the last 13 years.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 22,600 students shifting to cyber charter schools at an additional statewide cost over $331 million, according to the PSBA.
Dr. Janet Sardon, superintendent of Yough School District in Westmoreland County, said charter school tuition payments are “making our mission and what we’re doing in the best interest of kids much more difficult to achieve.”
Charter school costs in Yough School District have increased 38% in the five-year period from 2017-18 to 2021-22, from $771,000 to about $1 million.
During the 2019-20 school year, Yough launched a campaign to bring charter school students back to the school district, and about 20 students returned.
“But the pandemic hurt rural districts like Yough,” Sardon said.
State subsidy has failed to keep up with increasing cyber costs, she said.
In 2017-18, Yough School District’s basic education funding increased 2%, from $9.8 million to about $10 million.
“So, our charter school costs went up 38%, so there’s a difference in lack of funding 36% just in basic education funding that we don’t have to cover those costs,” Sardon said, noting about 57% of the district’s budget is funded by state revenue. “I don’t know how districts are supposed to keep up.”
The only options to offset charter school costs, she said, are to raise taxes or eliminate personnel or programs.
“Something really needs to be done,” said Sardon, who favors fixed tuition costs. “I’m a superintendent who is not against charter schools. What I am against is creating systems that compete on different playing fields – and not even on different playing fields, we’re not even in the same ball park.”
Dr. Kevin Monaghan, superintendent of Central Greene School District, questioned the quality of education being offered by many cyber and charter schools, and said there is a need for greater accountability.
He said it is not uncommon for students who return to the district after attending cyberschool to need remediation.
“We’re getting back kids that show deficits in their skills,” said Monaghan. “So, they’re a year or two behind, and there’s money that needs to go into remediating these kids and getting them caught up.”
Monaghan also expressed frustration that home school districts are responsible for enforcing truancy requirements and filing citations with the magistrate, when necessary, for cyberschool students.
Central Greene School District’s cyber tuition costs increased 47% from the 2019-20 school year to the 2020-21 school year, when it paid $1,850,000 to cyber and schools.
It’s especially frustrating, noted Monaghan, because for the past decade, the school district has offered its own Cyber Academy.
“Something needs to be done,” said Monaghan.
South Fayette School District Assistant Director of Finance Chris Juzwick said in many cases, school districts pay considerably more to educate a cyber charter student than it costs for a student to attend a private school in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
He also noted, ironically, that when he worked for the Carlynton School District, he drove daily past a billboard advertising a performing arts charter school. During his three years at Carlynton, the school district was forced to furlough teachers, but still had to pay high tuition rates for students to attend cyberschool.
“We eliminated an art and music and physical education teacher in three years I was there, but we’re paying tuition to a charter school that’s able to advertise on a billboard,” he said.
At Sto-Rox School District, where the rates of poverty and crime are high, one-third of children within the school district – about 600 students – are enrolled in cyber or charter school.
The school district had had multiple years of operating deficits – last year, the commonwealth of Pennsylvania stepped in to help get the district back on track financially – and more than 30% of students have been identified with a disability.
During the 2021-22 school year, the district paid $7.2 million for cyber charter tuition.
Said Superintendent Megan Van Fossan, “We desperately need reform for cyber, charter, and special education funding.”
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