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The truth about cyber charter schools

| Tuesday, May 12, 2015, 9:00 p.m.

Your recent article “Jeannette joins the call for cyberschool funding change” begs a rebuttal. The rationale the district relies upon is tired and flawed. Alarmingly, in presenting an entirely one-sided story, your editorial team and reporter did not strive to meet a basic journalistic principle: balance.

Superintendent Hutchinson says, “The cyber charter school funding formula has no basis in the actual price to educate (those students).” What he fails to admit is that the existing formula for traditional school districts lacks equity, as well. Furthermore, all school districts pay a per-pupil payment minus all per-pupil expenditures for each student attending a cyber school, which is about 80 percent of what they pay to educate that student.

The superintendent goes on to assert, “Cyberschools do not have what is known as ‘bricks and mortar' expenses, such as maintaining school buildings and paying utilities.” That's a good one, and one that cyber charter school opponents have been bandying about for years. The reality, however, is that, while cyber charter schools do not have classroom space expenses, they maintain buildings from which they administer and teach their students — buildings that need to be heated, lit, wired for Internet and equipped for lavatories.

Cyber schools also are required to pay for instructional materials, computers, Internet access and technological infrastructure, and must rent building space for mandated state testing. This year alone, PA Cyber paid approximately $1.5 million to rent sites across the state at which it administered the PSSAs to its students.

The latest figures show that, as a percent of total costs, cyber charter schools spend 67.72 percent of their budgets on instructional costs, compared with school districts, which devote 58.3 percent. Cyber charter schools spend more on student instructional costs, yet receive less funding for each student than what is available to school districts.

We make those investments as nonprofits, contrary to board member Moe Lewis's claim that “these (cyberschools) are for-profit schools.” Under law, public cyber charter schools must be established as nonprofits. Does Jeannette purchase its curriculum and instructional materials from a nonprofit? PA Cyber does.

I want the readers of the Tribune-Review to know that we take our responsibility as stewards of taxpayer money seriously. So I take issue when board member Mark Gogolsky maintains, “There is no accountability in charter schools.”

We face the same accountability measures as public schools — and more — including state testing, audits and site visits. The Pennsylvania Department of Education continually monitors cyber schools' progress and performance. It annually evaluates each school's compliance with state laws and ensures fulfillment of their charter. To boot, we have been advocating for stricter accountability and transparency measures in Harrisburg for the past several legislative cycles.

Public cyber charter schools face the highest accountability standard — parental choice. Parents are choosing to leave Jeannette for a reason. The move to charters is a symptom of a fundamental problem in the district the parents clearly see but the board chooses to ignore. Parents don't leave a district school because they want to; they do so because they believe they must for the sake of their children and their future.

Michael J. Conti is CEO of The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School.

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