Bills target cyber costs

Proposed legislation would provide financial relief for school districts but could dismantle the cyber charter industry, officials say.

There are two proposals, both of which would make a significant impact on local budgets and ultimately taxpayers, Altoona Area School District community relations director Paula Foreman said.

Senate Bill 34 introduced in January and House Bill 526 introduced Feb. 19 would eliminate school district payment to cyber charter schools if the student’s district of residence offers a cyber-based program.

Altoona Area School District pays over $2 million per year to cyber charter schools, Foreman said, so the savings if the legislation passes would be astronomical.

However, Rep. Curtis Sonney, R-Erie, doesn’t plan on pushing his House Bill 526 through the education committee without thoroughly investigating the viability of school districts’ cyber programs.

“If my bill passed today, cyber charters would go out of business. More than likely that’s what would happen,” he said. “Right now we have a choice to go to a cyber charter school outside of our public school district. We are not going to ruin that choice if school districts offer next to nothing.”

Sonney’s bill is basically sitting in the education committee as a tool, a conversation starter, he said. Sonney is majority chairman of the House Education Committee.

“I’ve proposed the same bill for two prior sessions. But once I was named chairman of the education commitee this session, I knew districts would rally around it,” he said.

“My hopes throughout the course of the next year are that I can generate interest and investigate the cyber issue. I want to physically see what districts and cyber charters offer. I’m going to assume most public schools don’t have as much programming that is available in the cyber industry today.”

In Pennsylvania’s present cyber charter climate, quality can be a double-edged sword.

Hollidaysburg Area Superintendent Bob Gildea said his district’s own cyber program is a quality product, but there are families who shop for cyber charters that are less rigorous and require fewer credits to graduate.

“There is a segment of the population looking for the path of least resistance,” he said.

“What we see is students start in our cyber charter program, and when we hold them accountable for showing up and doing work, the kids who can’t hold up to our standards start shopping around for other cyber schools.”

To attract students away from attending cyber charters, Altoona Area and many other districts have fully implemented their own cyber academies at a third of the cost they pay to cyber charters.

The Altoona Cyber Academy is a cyber program that is taught by local teachers and provides diplomas from Altoona Area School District.

The academy is for grades seven to 12, and the district is currently completing a cyber-based program for students in grades kindergarten through sixth, which will be implemented in the near future, Foreman said.

The debate over cyber charter funding has been ongoing since cyber charter schools’ inception in the late 1990s.

Currently, Pennsylvania has 13 cyber charters enrolling more than 34,000 students, or 10 percent of all the cyber students in the country, according to The Philadelphia Public School Notebook, an independent, nonprofit news service.

The question of how much cyber charter tuition costs per pupil has long been answered with “what do districts have?”

And the cost paid to cyber charter schools per student is different for each district.

The per-pupil payment formula requires Altoona Area, for example, to include the cost of the district’s athletic programs, student activity clubs, community contributions such as the library and Central Blair Recreation Commission, as well as the costs to maintain its buildings and grounds. Also included in the formula is the mandated contribution to the Public School Employees’ Retirement System, which has significantly increased over the past several years.

“The current cyber charter funding formula is grossly unfair and adds additional burden to local taxpayers,” Foreman said.

Senate Bill 34 regarding cyber charter school tuition was introduced to the Senate Education Committee by Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Berks, in January, and it has not moved from there.

The same proposals have been introduced in each of the past three sessions and gone nowhere.

“None of the charter reforms have really taken off,” Schwank admitted in a phone interview.

Her bill may meet the same fate, but there is a difference in the climate around the issue because more and more districts have been making their own cyber academies.

“It may not get out of the committee this time either, but the conversation is starting, and it may be elevated to the point where legislators are willing to address this,” Schwank said.

“I just met with a school superintendent of a very small district who said the cost for nine students to attend a cyber charter school is $400,000 out of the district’s budget, but they have been able to start their own program that costs one-third of that.”

Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, said she doesn’t want to make it more difficult for families to send their child to a public cyber charter school of their choice.

Ward acknowledged that school districts’ cyber programs may be great but not a family’s first choice.

“There are parents unhappy with the brick-and-mortar school and who do not want to put their child in a cyber program of same district,” she said. “(These proposals) limit parents’ choice to send children where they think is best.”

Ward said she would, however, be in favor of assigning a legislative commission to reconsider how cyber charters are funded.

Foreman said there are also legislative proposals to establish cyber charter funding based on the actual costs incurred by cyber charter schools. And that legislation would be beneficial, Foreman said.

In addition, she said there has been a proposal for funding cyber charters at a determined rate for regular education and special education students.

“Even that option would significantly relieve district budgets,” Foreman said.

Other superintendents in the area agree on promoting Senate Bill 34 and other bills that seek to achieve the same goals.

“I feel it would promote district run cyber education programs,” Claysburg-Kimmel Superintendent Darren McLaurin said.

“Students would be encouraged to enroll in these in-house programs and ultimately reduce costs for schools.”