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Is 2021 the year for cyber charter school reform?

A recent report on the impact of COVID-19 from the Pa. Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) points to an often-overlooked cost school districts around the state face this year: $475 million in additional cyber charter school tuition costs, as more students leave public schools for cyber charters.

Bethlehem Area School District officials, for example, are projecting an increase of more than $1.7 million (to $33,938,600) in charter school tuition for the 2021-22 academic year, with a sizable portion of the increase going to cyber charter schools. Although the district has made great strides in reclaiming charter school students – reducing the number in brick-and-mortar charter schools from 1,872 in 2018-19 to 1,762 during the current year, the number of students enrolled in cyber charter schools has increased during that same period, from 234 to 396, with the biggest jump occurring this year.

Faced with the uncertainty of Pa. Dept. of Health-mandated shutdowns of public schools, the parents of hundreds of students have simply opted into an alternate system – a system with far less oversight than public schools, and one that takes advantage of a funding loophole public school administrators have decried for years.

Payments greater than

costs to serve

Simply put, cyber charter schools are paid by public school districts at the same rate that brick-and-mortar charter schools are, based on the average cost to educate students on-site in public schools, with separate rates for students in regular education and special education programs.

However, for cyber charter schools, the rate paid varies widely from the cost to serve these students. As the Bethlehem Press revealed last summer (https://www.lvpnews.com/20200505/what-is-basd-cyber-academy/), the BASD Cyber Academy (BASDCA) has been educating BASD students 100 percent virtually for several years, with roughly 200 students involved in 2019-20, at a fraction of the cost of on-site education, thus far less than cyber charters are paid for the same task.

Mark James, who directs BASDCA, reports that the cost to serve high school students taking a maximum course load of eight credits is $6,700 per year, with the figure at $5,000 for middle school and $5,700 for elementary students. High school students taking the normal course load of six credits only cost $5,000 per year.

Payments made to charter schools – whether brick-and-mortar or online-only – are approximately $12,000, more than double BASD’s cost to provide BASDCA to children in regular education programs.

This cost disparity does not sit well with members of the school board. Faced with increasing costs to serve students – particularly with the current coronavirus-related restrictions and mitigation measures in place – the board is struggling to make ends meet, and – as board president Mike Faccinetto remarked during the Jan. 19 meeting – is almost certain to raise property taxes this year, with the only limit being the state’s Act 1 index of 3.7 percent.

School board member Dr. Karen Beck Pooley notes three major issues with cyber charter school funding, as it is currently implemented in our state: “As districts are providing more and more virtual learning options, we’re realizing just how excessive our tuition payments to cyber charters are (roughly double – or more – what our own costs are for online programs). [Second], the method for determining charter tuition payments for students with special needs (simply using the average of our own costs) similarly overpays charters, as the special needs students they educate tend to need far less support than a good number of the students our district educates directly. [As a result], this disconnect – between what charters spend on instruction and what they receive in tuition – boosts line items of theirs that have nothing to do with educating children, like marketing.” Dr. Beck Pooley draws a direct line between taxpayers’ wallets and cyber charter schools’ marketing efforts: “Any time you see a billboard advertising a charter school, or get swag for a charter at a baseball game, you’re seeing how some of those dollars are spent.”

Special education

payments problematic

Dr. Beck Pooley’s second point is one that critics of the current charter school funding system have been making for years. Students in special education programs take $25,000 of taxpayers’ money with them to charter schools, even if they never set foot in a charter classroom, and regardless of the actual costs involved in providing an appropriate education individualized for their specific disability.

The $25,000 special education payment figure is pulled upward by the cost to serve children with more significant disabilities, most of whom remain in the public school system. In an examination of charter school funding during the 2017–18 school year, the Pa. Auditor General found that 95 percent of state students receiving the most costly level of special education services remained in public schools.

Charter schools, including cyber charters, use the surplus money they receive from public school districts – money in excess of the cost to serve students – in a variety of ways, as Dr. Beck Pooley points out, including marketing. The result is that many of the students enrolled in charter schools did not leave public schools, but instead never entered them. In BASD, for example, there are 146 first-graders in charter schools this year; only nine of them participated in BASD kindergarten programs last year. The other 94 percent of charter school first-graders have never experienced the system out of which their families opted.

The nine charter first-graders in 2020–2021 who left the public school system after attending kindergarten in BASD are only one percent of last year’s 850 BASD kindergarteners – and seven of these nine students are in cyber charter schools, a situation most likely due to coronavirus-related uncertainty. BASD taxpayers will bear this added cost.

Legislative reform on the way?

BASD’s school board has highlighted these two issues – cyber charter payments and special education charter payments – as ripe for remediation by legislative action this year, joining with the task force created by the Pa. School Boards Association (PSBA), PAcharterchange.org. The board, and others across the state, hope to garner the support of a coalition of legislators in Harrisburg, including some who support charter schools and the “school choice” movement, to close the loopholes that created these funding disparities.

State Sen. Lisa Boscola, who represents the area served by BASD, told the Press, “Locally, the pandemic demonstrated the quality cyber product our school districts offer for kids that want a cyber option. It is very different than a brick-and-mortar experience and doesn’t deserve equal compensation.” Sen. Boscola informed the Press that she has reintroduced her bill from last legislative session, with the aim of leveling the playing field for cyber schools. “Cyber school is a critical choice for families. However, cyber charter schools should not receive the same money that brick-and-mortar charters do. This is a loophole that needs to be fixed.”

This slide, prepared by BASD Chief Financial Officer Stacy Gober, shows the increasing charter school costs the district has faced over the past 15 years.
PRESS IMAGES COURTESY BASD Although BASD has managed to stem the flight to brick-and-mortar charter schools over the past few years, uncertainties about the delivery of education in light of the novel coronavirus circulating in the community have led to a sharp uptick in cyber charter enrollments.