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New Florence girl advocates for cyber schools at state hearing

| Wednesday, April 17, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

Two bills that would reduce funding for cyber schools from local school districts could be considered by the state House in June.

Hattie Henderson, a New Florence native and 2012 Achievement House cyber charter school graduate, attended a House education hearing to advocate for cyber schools.

“I felt like I was able to put a face on what cyber school was like for some students,” said Henderson, who graduated as valedictorian from Achievement House and is majoring in animal science and agribusiness management at Penn State Fayette, The Eberly Campus, near Uniontown.

“Cyber school was really important to me. It made a huge impact on my life and where I'm going with it. I feel like if they lost this funding, less opportunities would be available to students, like me, to have the same experience,” she said.

The bills addressed at the hearing — House Bill 618, sponsored by Mt. Bethel Republican Joe Emrick, and House Bill 759, sponsored by Mt. Pleasant Township Republican Mike Reese — would modify how traditional school districts calculate funding for cyber schools.

Because cyber schools span the state and cannot collect local taxes, a school district is required to pay a percentage of its per-pupil cost for each cyber school student living within the district's boundaries.

Some expenses, such as transportation, construction and adult-education programs are deducted before the cyber school percentage is calculated, because cyber schools do not provide those services.

Reese's bill would expand those deductions for the districts to include health, food and library services, and 50 percent of costs for extracurricular programs.

“While cyber schools do offer some extracurricular activities, it's not to the extent that brick-and-mortar schools do. For example, I've not heard of a cyber school with a marching band,” Reese said.

That would result in less total money for cyber schools.

“We are already operating on less per student than brick-and-mortar schools,” said Lynn Rodden, spokeswoman for Achievement House. “We just don't want to lose any more money.”

Rodden said that the funding equation for cyber schools should be revised.

“It's true that we don't provide things like food services, but we might be spending more money on technology, for example. We agree that the funding calculations need to be revised, but they need to take into consideration the costs we incur for the extra services we provide, as well as the services we do not provide,” Rodden said.

For Ligonier Valley School District, business manager Don Irwin said rough estimates indicate the local district would have saved between $125,000 and $150,000 last year, under the bill's provisions.

Reese said the bill package is “the first effort to get some legislation together that deals with the unequal funding effectively and responsibly.”

Cyber school students “are entitled to the amount we're spending on educational programs,” Irwin said. “Things like cafeteria services are ancillary to having a brick-and-mortar school and should not be considered.”

Emrick's bill calls for districts to deduct contributions to employees' pensions from the funding calculation. He did not return telephone calls to his Harrisburg and Mt. Bethel offices.

“The charter schools are double-dipping by getting money (related to the pensions) from districts and the state,” Irwin said. “There's no reason taxpayers should be paying for anything twice.”

Rodden said cyber schools are over-funded in terms of pension contributions, but Emrick's bill approaches the other extreme and favors traditional districts.

“There are reasonable remedies to make the funding calculation more equitable, but then we want it to be equal and not favor one side,” Rodden said. “It's important to note that we did not come up with the funding formula. It was established by the (state) Department of Education.”

Rodden contends the proposed bills favor traditional districts. “There's just no way cyber schools will be able to continue to exist if more money is eliminated from our budgets,” Rodden said.

Reese contends the proposals, if passed, would have minimum financial impact on cyber schools.

“It doesn't do anything to eliminate school choice for parents or students,” he said.

Legislators are “making adjustments” to the bills, based on testimony from the March hearing, and “trying to put together the best possible bill,” Reese said.

“I'm very confident that the House is going to pass some form of this bill in mid-June,” he said.

Jewels Phraner is a reporter for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-1218 or