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Charter costs force districts to make cuts

Rising charter school tuition costs for school districts are increasingly taking away resources and opportunities for traditional public school students, local school officials say.

According to data from The Keystone Center for Charter Change at Pennsylvania School Boards Association, charter tuition costs for districts have increased 47.6% between 2014-15 and 2019-20, while charter school enrollment has only increased 10.4% in the same timeframe.

But as one area superintendent said, cyber charter schools don’t face the same expenses as public school districts.

As districts are forced to foot the constantly increasing bill, programs in public schools are taking a hit, potentially impacting students’ college readiness, some claim.

Altoona Area School District Superintendent Charles Prijatelj said his district was forced to cut 11 teaching positions, in-source several special education programs, develop programs using sponsorships and restructure transportation contracts and other outside contracts at least in part due to rising charter tuition costs.

Prijatelj said the district is combating a $6 million budget deficit, which is primarily driven by more than $4 million in cyber charter school tuition.

Districts facing cutbacks

With decreased means of funding their own students’ education, school districts have no choice but to cut back on costs to compensate for considerable loss at the hands of what Prijatelj described as a flawed system.

“While some costs are taken out of the formula for reimbursement, many other costs still remain,” Prijatelj said. “For example, special education costs don’t reflect a realistic delivery of services because severe cases cannot receive a quality education in a cyber setting, but districts still pay at a predetermined higher rate for special education students.”

Prijatelj said cyber charter schools also don’t have the building and infrastructure maintenance needs that regular brick and mortar charter schools do, but cyber schools still receive an average daily membership that reflects those types of costs.

During the 2019-20 school year, Pennsylvania school districts paid a combined $2.2 billion in charter tuition, more than three times what districts spent on career and technical education programs that year, according to Charter Change.

Districts also no longer have the recourse that they used to.

In 2010-11, the state stopped reimbursing districts portions of their charter tuition expenses. As a result, districts have resorted to upping property taxes, which places much of the financial burden of charter funding on residents.

The average school district in Pennsylvania pays about $4.4 million per year in charter tuition, according to Pennsylvania Charter Change. The Altoona Area School District’s bill was $4.5 million last year, but according to Prijatelj, his district might have a smaller bill this year.

Prijatelj said that the number of students within the district who were in outside cyber charter schools was up to 325 students last year because of COVID-19.

The pandemic, Prijatelj said, is just one of multiple reasons why more students are enrolling in charters, though.

“At this time, it is COVID-19 concerns for some students, accountability for other students and a third group of parents are choosing to use the system to punish the local school districts for not bending to their demands on a variety of issues,” Prijatelj said. “There are many parents and students that have legitimate reasons for needing a cyber-based education and many of those students are in the Altoona Area Cyber Academy.”

The AASD cyber academy has more than 500 K-12 students receiving online instruction daily and has helped cut down on the number of students choosing cyber charter institutions this school year, Prijatelj said.

The district’s in-house cyber program cost less than a quarter of its charter tuition bill last year, totalling approximately $1 million despite serving more district students than outside charters, he said.

The Hollidaysburg Area School District has its own cyber program, too, which Superintendent Robert Gildea hopes will continue to draw in students who might otherwise choose a cyber charter.

For in-house cyber, the HASD pays in the $3,000 range per pupil, with the exact total varying by grade level. That cost for outside cyber, however, rises to $10,933, according to data from the 2020-21 school year. For special education students in cyber charters, the district’s cost is more than double that, totalling $22,460 per pupil.

As a result of these costs, Gildea said, HASD has been forced to make cuts to equipment purchases, staffing and professional development.

“Further staffing and program cuts are inevitable unless our state Legislature takes common sense measures to correct a charter funding system that is wasting millions of our taxpayers’ dollars,” Gildea said in an email.

According to one charter school official, though, that funding is not a waste, but rather, quite the opposite.

The case for cyber charter schools

Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School CEO James Hanak said that the numbers speak for themselves.

“There are 60,000 families in Pennsylvania that do not agree that it’s a waste of money, because they chose to put their children in cyber charters,” Hanak said.

“Monopolies don’t like competition. If there’s a good reason that cyber charters are not effective, then that would be a better argument, but it doesn’t account for the fact that 60,000 families have chosen cyber charters over home school districts,” he said.

“Opponents like to point to our PSSA state-sponsored scores and say that cyber charters don’t meet the level of proficiency, which is 60 percent of students reaching proficiency,” Hanak said, admitting “that’s a somewhat legitimate concern, however, there’s a fairly large turnover of students in cybers.

Hanak said the students who come to Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School are an average of a year and a half behind their peers.

Hanak said there are good reasons why parents would want to send their children to charters instead of their home districts.

“Parents choose cyber charters because of medical issues or bullying issues or the district just isn’t meeting their needs,” Hanak said.

Ultimately, Hanak said, charters have a lot to offer that traditional public schools might not.

“One thing we have that traditional public schools do not is open and easy access for parents to the school board members,” Hanak said. “One of the most significant things we give back to the family is about four and a half hours of wasted time, like busing, recess, changing classes, taking attendance, discipline issues, but we don’t have that at our school.”

Hanak said other things cyber charters give back to parents is the easy ability to connect the teacher and the student.

“There are multiple ways for parents to connect with teachers, and we train our teachers to reach out and stay connected to parents. Our system is not set so the teacher has 30 students in front of them in Zoom every day. We do a lot asynchronously, like lectures online, so students can go look at it, come into one-on-one or small group meetings with teachers and have lots of interaction instead of teachers spending time over and over doing the same lecture. That’s the beauty of a cyber program.”

As many superintendents point out, they, too, have cyber programs, but Hanak said charters do them better.

“What makes ours better is that over the last 20 years, every day, we have 250 teachers working to provide and create a cyber education and school districts might have 10 or 100 or several hundred students in their cyber programs, but they don’t take all of their money and pour it into that,” Hanak said. “We are providing state-of-the-art technology to support every single student, and we have the best delivery platforms because we provide all kinds of ways to connect with students, not just one set way like Google Docs, so it makes sense that we have a better product.”

Districts have programs, too

In a Charter Change newsletter, Chestnut Ridge School District Superintendent Mark Kudlawiec said his district may consider staffing cuts “or something of that nature” due to increasing charter tuition costs.

In a phone call, Kudlawiec said he’s hoping to avoid making staffing cuts, but that increasing charter tuition costs will force his district to make sacrifices.

“If costs keep increasing, we’re going to have to offer less opportunity for these students, including opportunities with electives like the designing, the drawing, the art, the music, and repurpose staff’s job descriptions or reinvent programs,” Kudlawiec said. “I can’t keep up with these increases. I like fair competition, but the thing is, no one’s holding these charters accountable. Cybers don’t have the expenses regular districts have.”

In order for the problem to be reversed, Prijatelj said, the community will need to be more understanding of how its districts are being impacted.

“Parents need to understand that by state law, every school district is required and held accountable for delivering a Pennsylvania Core Standards-aligned curriculum, which means that instructional programs across the state’s public schools represent approximately the same expectations for all Pennsylvania students,” Prijatelj said.

Ultimately, Prijatelj said, what some parents and students are looking for in charters is already there in local districts.

“The Altoona Area School District provides a highly rigorous and quality-driven cyber instructional program in which students receive the support necessary and the structure and accountability measures to ensure their success,” Prijatelj said. “Speaking directly to the quality of our program, the Altoona Area School District boasts a 100 percent graduation rate from our cyber academy program and has access to all of our programs and career readiness opportunities.”

Mirror Staff Writer Andrew Mollenauer is at 814-946-7428.

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