Courtesy of Central Greene School District
Dr. Kevin Monaghan
Courtesy of Central Greene School District
Dr. Kevin Monaghan
Courtesy of Burgettstown Area School District
Local public school leaders are hopeful that a bill making its way through the Pennsylvania Legislature will reform how Pennsylvania’s cyber charter schools are funded.
In July, the state House of Representatives passed H.B. 1422, aimed at tightening funding and oversight of the state’s cyber charter schools. If passed into law, H.B. 1422 – which passed by a vote of 122-81 – would set a statewide flat tuition rate of $8,000 for non-special education cyber charter students, saving taxpayers an estimated $456 million a year.
“Cyber charter schools are not accountable and/or responsible to the taxpaying citizens at the same levels as public schools,” said Dr. Jesse T. Wallace III, superintendent of Laurel Highlands School District. “Any type of legislation that makes the playing field level for all educational entities is a step in the right direction.”
Wallace said the school district paid more than $2 million for cyber school tuition during the 2022-23 school year.
H.B. 1422 also would require cyber charter schools to be more transparent about operations; make their budgets, records and board meetings open to the public; consider the management companies that handle cyber schools’ finances a “local agency” for the Right-to-Know law; and impose fund balance limits on cyber schools.
In total, Pennsylvania school districts pay about $1 billion in tuition to the commonwealth’s 14 cyber charter schools, which educate 60,000 children.
School districts pay cyber charters based on the district’s per-pupil cost – currently, it ranges from about $9,000 to $24,000, depending on the district.
“Right now, there is no uniformity to it,” said Washington School District Superintendent George Lammay. “And the costs being sent to cyber schools are inflated – that’s the kindest word I can use. School districts are sending more money to cyber schools than it costs to educate children.”
Earlier this year, more than 90% of Pennsylvania school districts signed a resolution asking the General Assembly to change the funding system for cyber charters.
Lammay said he isn’t advocating for the elimination of school choice, but he wants school districts to be charged fairly for the costs of providing students with a charter school education.
“If you come to Washington School District, you can get any financial information you request. (Cyberschools) don’t show fund balances, which I do as a superintendent. Every school should be transparent about costs and expenses,” said Lammay. “That goes for academic information, too. Those entities don’t share information with us about the children who we pay for to go to their school. We can’t get their grades, attendance information, anything.”
Jefferson-Morgan School District, in rural Greene County, spent more than $300,000 on cyber charter tuition last year. The district paid on average $13,273 for a regular education student and $27,104 for a special education student.
“The costs to educate these students is too high in cyber charter schools. They don’t have the same obligations as a brick-and-mortar school has, such as building maintenance, athletics, and activities,” said Superintendent Brandon Robinson. “I think a fair cost per student that is a flat rate would be a step in the right direction to make it an even playing field.”
Neighboring Central Greene School District spent roughly $1.2 million for 67 students enrolled in outside cyber charter schools in 2022-23.
Several area school districts have responded by offering their own cyber education programs.
According to the 2020 State of Education report, more than 98% of school districts providing a cyber education program were able to provide their programs for “significantly less” or “less” than the school district’s established charter school tuition rate.
Bentworth School District, which spent nearly $800,000 in cyber costs last year, is encouraging families who opt for cyber learning to enroll in Bentworth Cyber Academy. Among the benefits: the district will provide a computer and reimburse families for internet, and will deliver breakfast and lunch to students two times per week.
Burgettstown Area School District Superintendent Stephen Puskar said the proposed reform from H.B. 1422 would save the district an estimated $500,000.
At a time when school districts face rising costs, especially for special education services and payments into the state pension system, the savings would be welcome.
“Any savings are significant, especially to a school district like Burgettstown,” said Puskar, noting a recent report that the district is underfunded by more than $1.7 million. “When you add the charter burden to the school district, it can become crippling and prohibit us from keeping our operations at an optimal level.”
Puskar said the school district is committed to providing students with the best education possible, “however, the money we must pay to charters could be used for operational expenses.
“Ultimately,” he said, “charter school funding places an additional burden upon our taxpayers.”
The school district’s costs for cyber charter school in 2021-22 was $1,033,450.
In 2022-23, Burgettstown School District paid about $16,583 for regular education students and $31,528 for special education students.
Dr. Anne Clark, CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said she agrees that the charter funding formula should be evaluated, along with the more significant issue of the Pennsylvania school funding system.
“But the cut of (as much as) $485 million would be the death of many cyberschools that children and their families rely on,” said Clark.
She referenced the state Commonwealth Court ruling earlier this year declaring the Pennsylvania school funding system unconstitutional.
“The lawsuit says there’s a whole group of children not getting enough funding to get educated in an equitable way in Pennsylvania, but now H.B. 1422 say’s we’re going to cut funding to students in cyberschools. Often, the most vulnerable students are in charter schools,” said Clark. “The majority of the 170,000 students who attend charter schools are in underserved areas, so charter schools educate the neediest and underserved in Pennsylvania. School choice in education is vitally important.”
Clark said there are more than 20,000 students on waiting lists for Pennsylvania charter and cyber charter schools.
She said more than 400,000 parents sent letters to Senate and House members opposing H.B. 1422.
“H.B. 1422 would harm thousands of families who have determined cyberschools are the best environment for their child,” she said.
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