Mark Kudlawiec, Daniel Webb, John Zesiger & Arnold Nadonley: Level playing field for public, charter schools
As school superintendents with decades of experience as educators, we continue to look forward to the start of school each fall. While our enthusiasm has not waned, some things have changed. One is the intensifying struggle each year to finalize a budget that can deliver what our students need.
There are many reasons for school district budget challenges, but the bottom line is this: Costs we cannot control are rising faster than the growth in local tax revenues and state funding. One of those cost drivers is the money we lose to unaffiliated cybercharter schools.
In Pennsylvania, when a student enrolls in a brick-and-mortar or cybercharter school, the school district must pay the charter school a tuition for that student out of its own budget. The cost of educating a student online is considerably lower than a traditional education since cyber schools do not need to cover the costs that brick-and- mortar schools do.
Incredibly, despite the lower costs of an online education, under state law a school district must pay a cybercharter the same amount per student as it pays a brick-and-mortar charter. These required payments have no relation to the reality of what it costs to educate each student. A 2012 study out of Fordham Institute, a pro-charter group, estimated that per pupil costs for cyber schools ranged from $5,000 to $7,700. Our districts have their own cyber programs, which cost as little as $2,800 per student in Moshannon Valley. But a 2018 survey by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators found that districts pay, on average, $11,306 for each general education student attending a cybercharter and $24,192 for each special education student.
Paying tax dollars to cybers without any relation to the actual costs of educating students certainly seems nonsensical, but it is only part of the problem. The other is that every school district pays charter tuition at different rates. For example, in 2017-18, Panther Valley School District in Carbon County paid $7,846 for each regular education student in a cyber school, while the Austin Area School District in Potter County paid $17,551.
For special education students attending cybers, the disparity is even more dramatic. Norwin School District paid $15,631 per special education student. Lower Merion in the Philadelphia suburbs paid close to $54,000 per student. Keep in mind, because cyber schools remotely educate students from districts across the state, students from each of those school districts may be getting the same exact education, from the same teacher and with the same curriculum.
There is more. In the 2015-16 school year, the Richland School District taxpayers shelled out $269,000 in tuition costs for 32 students to attend six underperforming cybercharter schools. The highest state School Performance Profile score of any of those cybers was 57.4, or a solid “F.” Taxpayers are paying out more, but the cyber charter students are learning less.
We recognize that a cyber school option may be the right fit for some students. That is why our districts have invested in cyber charter programs of our own, and at lower cost and with better results. We also understand the role of charter schools in providing choice in public education, as long as there is a level playing field.