Pennsylvania School District Trims Budget with Cyber Charters

Facing a $2.5 million budget deficit, the Carbondale School District in northeastern Pennsylvania hopes that virtually-run charter schools will reduce the cost of educating students in physical buildings.

by Sarah Hofius Hall, The Times-Tribune, Scranton, Pa. / April 8, 2019
AP/Dominic Lipinski

(TNS) — As cyber charter school enrollment grew over the last decade, Carbondale Area School District’s budget reserves disappeared.

Now operating with a $2.5 million deficit, the district started its own cyber program last year, joining a growing number of districts trying to find relief.

The 37 school districts in Northeast Pennsylvania pay a combined $42 million in cyber charter school tuition each year. The total amount paid — and the way the state determines tuition — has many people calling for reform.

Cyber charter schools are privately operated, publicly funded schools authorized by the state and paid for by school districts. Advocates say cyber schools provide options for families seeking choice for their children’s educations. Children learn virtually on charter school-provided computers, at no cost to the families.

The cost comes to the districts instead.

Bills in the state House and Senate would allow districts with their own cyber programs to stop paying tuition to cyber charter schools. If a student decided to attend a cyber charter school, the family would be responsible for the tuition.

Education Voters of Pennsylvania, a statewide public education advocacy organization, also called for reform. In a February report, the group found that by basing cyber school tuition on what it actually costs to educate a child virtually, districts statewide could save more than $250 million annually. In NEPA, savings could be as much as $24.5 million each year. In the 2017-18 school year, 2,799 students in Lackawanna, Luzerne, Monroe, Pike, Susquehanna, Wayne and Wyoming counties attended cyber charter schools.

“There are great proposals with cyber legislation,” said Robert Mehalick, Carbondale Area superintendent. “If that would come to fruition, it would be tremendous.”

Possible Reform

Pennsylvania bases cyber charter tuition on the cost of educating a student in physical school buildings, with no relationship to the actual instructional costs for regular and special education instruction online.

In NEPA, those tuition costs range from $8,032 per non-special education student in Carbondale Area, to $14,718 for a non-special education student from Wallenpaupack Area. Even if students from both districts attend the same cyber charter school, those districts pay different tuitions. For a special education student, costs range from $16,225 in Hazleton Area, to $34,863 for Mountain View, according to the report from Education Voters. The group used 2016-17 numbers in its calculations.

With students learning from computers at home, charter schools have lower costs than school districts. The schools “have a higher student-to-teacher ratio than district schools and frequently use recorded programs that can be re-used in many classes or for students individually. Infrastructure is greatly reduced. In spite of this different cost structure, the state bases tuition on the cost of educating a child in the school district buildings and not on the actual cost of providing a cyber education,” according to the organization.

The report found that basing cyber school tuition on what it costs school districts to provide a full-time cyber education — $5,000 per student or less per year for a regular education student — and basing tuition for special education students on the state’s special education funding formula, would save more than $250 million annually statewide.

Beyond concerns about academic performance, with cyber charter schools generally having lower proficiency rates than traditional school districts, local educators want to increase financial accountability.

Bob McTiernan, executive director of the Northeastern Educational Intermediate Unit and a former superintendent, knows about the issues of cyber charter school tuition.

“I think it’s unfairly tapped into district resources,” he said. “Districts aren’t paying the cyber schools the actual costs to educate. ... The cost to educate a student in cyber is irrelevant.”

Many students who attend cyber charter schools were previously homeschooled or enrolled in private schools. When the student moves to a cyber school, the district in which the student resides picks up the cost. When students leave a district to attend a cyber charter school, the district cannot reduce fixed costs enough to make up for the cost of the tuition bill, according to Education Voters.

Meanwhile, Senate Bill 34 and House Bill 526, both introduced earlier this year and referred to their respective education committees, could change whether the cyber charter schools receive any funding at all.

If districts offered comparable online programs, families would have to pay to send their children elsewhere. Members of the Scranton School Board voted unanimously last week to support the legislation.

State Sen. John Blake, D-22, Archbald, signed on as a cosponsor of the Senate bill. While hoping lawmakers establish a bipartisan commission on charter school reform, something must be done immediately to ease school district’s burdens, he said.

“All we’re trying to do is level the playing field here,” he said. “I would hope it garners bipartisan support.”

State Rep. Tarah Toohil, R-116, Butler Twp., has cosponsored the bill in the House. Efforts to reach her were unsuccessful.

Ana Meyers, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, called the efforts “blatant attacks.”

“The legislations that have been recently introduced would eliminate public school choice for parents by forcing students to remain with a district that does not serve and meet the expectations of families,” she wrote in a statement. “Cyber charter schools are schools of choice in Pennsylvania whose demand has continued to increase dramatically over the past few years. Parents actively choose to leave a district because it does not meet their child’s needs or has failed their child either academically or from a relationship standpoint.”

Students are leaving school districts for a reason, and districts must look at the cause, she said.

The coalition “believes that cyber charter schools are a positive option for many families. We understand that for many others they may be perfectly satisfied with their neighborhood school,” Meyers wrote. “The bottom line is simple: It should be up to the parents, who know their children best, to decide where their child attends school, and these parents deserve to have cyber charter schools as an option. In Pennsylvania, we are fortunate to have public school choice. Limiting the types of public school choice offered will not result in better outcomes for students.”

Creating Options

School district leaders say they want to continue to give children the option of learning virtually, but want to do it in a way that reduces cost and gives students school district diplomas.

“I relish the competition,” McTiernan said. “If they’re doing it better, we need to do better.”

The NEIU offers the Northeast Online Learning Academy, or NOLA. About 450 students from 10 districts in the region — Carbondale Area, Lakeland, Mid Valley, Montrose, Mountain View, North Pocono, Riverside, Valley View, Wallenpaupack Area and Wayne Highlands — take classes through the online platform. The districts pay about $3,000 for a student to take five core classes.

The Scranton School District launched its cyber school in fall 2017. With 302 students taking classes, the program has doubled in enrollment from this time last year.

“We find the program is extremely successful, and we’ve had tremendous growth and interest,” Superintendent Alexis Kirijan, Ed.D., said.

Some of those 302 students returned from cyber charter schools, and others wanted to try a new option for learning, said Erin Keating, Ed.D., the district’s chief of leadership development and school operations. Some of those students spend half their day learning a trade at the Career Technology Center of Lackawanna County, and spend the rest of the school day taking core academic classes online. Scranton also used the cyber program for summer school classes and for a winter credit recovery program.

The district pays the Apex Learning platform $187,000 a year for unlimited licenses, and district teachers staff the cyber school. Working out of the library at West Scranton High School, a small team of cyber teachers — some full time and others who teach a class or two a day — are available to meet with students. Students can participate in all extracurricular activities and receive a district diploma at graduation.

Carbondale Area started its own cyber program last year. Seventeen of the 40 students now in the program came back from cyber charter schools, Mehalick said.

The district also has one of Lackawanna County’s two brick-and-mortar charter schools — Fell Charter School — within its boundaries. The district spends more than $2 million of its $24 million budget on charter school tuition. The other brick-and-mortar charter school, the Howard Gardner Multiple Intelligence Charter School, is on East Mountain in Scranton.

In the cyber program, Carbondale Area assigns each student a teacher to act as a case manager and has “constant communication” with the student. The district can provide the virtual option for $2,200 a child, instead of the more than $8,000 per student Carbondale Area would pay to a cyber charter school.

“It’s an alternative way of learning,” Mehalick said. “For some it’s perfect. But, it’s not for everyone.”

©2019 The Times-Tribune (Scranton, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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