Cyber school payout hits $3M

District expecting to pay $400,000 more than last year

Cash-strapped school districts are getting hit hard by cyber charter bills.

“Obviously it’s a strain on the school district and it’s getting increasingly worse,” Altoona Area Assistant Superintendent Brad Hatch said at a Thursday a committee of the whole school board meeting.

Altoona Area is projected to pay $3 million to cyber charter schools this year — about $400,000 more than last year — for tuition for 300 students to attend cyber charters, Hatch said.

Cyber charter school enrollment is not easily predicted. The only thing certain is that if a student wants to go, school districts have to pay.

Tuition for cyber charter schools advertised on TV and radio is free for families, but school districts pay the bills. A cyber charter student costs a district the same as a student who attends a brick-and-mortar school. At the core of the cyber charter debate is that the cost to educate a student in a cyber program is much less expensive than education in a traditional school.

Hatch said the low academic quality of cyber charters, too, is at the core of the years-long debate over whether they are wise investments for taxpayers.

A state Senate proposal in this legislative session would require a family to pay out-of-pocket tuition to attend a cyber charter school if the home district offers a “cyber-based program equal in scope and content.”

Altoona Area School District Superintendent Charles Prijatelj is hopeful for that legislation.

Altoona Area’s cyber-based program provides the same curriculum as the big name cyber charter schools but at half the cost, Prijatelj said. In fact, it uses the exact same curriculum and software as cyber charter schools.

The K12 brand curriculum is used by cyber charter schools and in-house public school cyber programs. That curriculum costs $4,000, Prijatelj said. But if a student decides to go to a cyber charter school, it’s $10,000, the cost of traditional education within Altoona Area’s physical buildings, because that’s the law.

Some cyber charters do not check attendance of students who log on. Agora Cyber Charter is one of those culprits, according to Prijatelj.

“A kid in Agora may log on every 10 days. Once they are eventually sent back to the school district, they are credit-deficient, way behind academically and struggling to be successful,” Prijatelj said.

For financial and academic reasons, school districts like Altoona are trying to get students to come back. And Altoona is taking feedback.

Hatch said every time a student notifies the district of his or her intention to enroll in a cyber charter, he asks about the reasons.

Now in its second year of operation, Hatch hopes within the first month of school, there will be 100 students taking advantage of the district’s in-house cyber academy. Last year, there were 75 students enrolled at the junior high and high school levels.

Hatch said Altoona Area teachers remain in close communication with students enrolled in the in-house cyber academy.

One challenge for public school cyber programs is how to compete with the TV and radio advertisements for cyber charter schools.

Prijatelj said he nearly jumped off of his couch when he saw a commercial for a cyber charter school promoting “asynchronized learning,” as a special offering. Asynchronized means there is no teacher interaction needed; it’s a file of worksheets and reading material. And what the commercial isn’t telling families is that it’s cheaper to provide education that way, without teacher interaction, Prijatelj said.

“I think it’s unethical for cyber charters to do that,” he said. “But people don’t know any better.”