HARRISBURG - A state formula for reimbursing online charter schools that accept students who prefer the Internet to a high school classroom is widely considered flawed.
Controversy rages over how to fix it, and how much money is fair for running schools online.
Gov. Tom Wolf wants to cap cyber school tuition at $5,950, with add-ons for special education students. Wolf says the new limit will save $160 million for local school districts, which reimburse the charter schools for students who enroll in them.
The Wolf administration estimates that cyber schools now get two or three times as much as they should. The state's 14 public cyber schools ended the 2013-14 year with $156 million in the bank because they collected more than they spent.
But cyber school operators disagree with Wolf's premise and say a move to change the formula is a cash grab by public school districts that want to keep the money that should be following students.
The governor’s plan, they say, lowballs their schools by about $4,000 per student.
“The powers-that-be need to recognize that we are public schools, too,” said Joanne Barnett, CEO of Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School, which has 2,500 students.
Pennsylvania school districts spend $421 million on tuition for 40,000 students who choose to study via online cyber schools. That represents about 2 percent of all public school students.
Wolf’s move to tie cyber school tuition to the actual costs of educating students online is a switch. Now the state links the tuition to per-pupil spending of a local school district, while allowing deductions for things like transportation that online schools don’t provide.
Wolf has cast his cyber school cost reforms as part of a broader effort to boost school funding. His biggest proposal to reverse cuts to education made by his predecessor involves a new tax on gas drilling.
Wolf's plan comes as the state House advances a proposal to improve the academic performance of cyber school students. That bill includes funding tweaks that were more modest than those proposed by the governor.
Current funding levels for cyber schools outrage educators including John Kurelja, superintendent of the Warrior Run Area School District in Northumblerand County.
Two-thirds of students who switch to cyber schools, he estimates, do so because they don’t want to work and believe that online classes will be easier.
“I don’t mind the competition,” Kurelja said. “But the deck has been slanted.”
Students must apply to attend cyber schools and if demand outstrips capacity, students may be put on waiting lists to get in. Still, the number of students enrolled in cyber schools has almost doubled since 2008-09.
In addition, local education leaders are irked because cyber schools spend some of their money on marketing.
“If a local school district spent tax dollars on advertising, there would be a hue and cry,” said Jay Himes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials.
But Maurice Flurie, CEO of Commonwealth Connections Academy, an online school serving 9,200 students from almost every district in the state, said advertising only represents a sliver of the budget.
It's defensible, he said, because it allows the school to reach students from across the state - an effort that also shows the schools are not cherry-picking students from wealthier school districts.
Exactly how much local districts spend on the cyber charters varies, with tuition tied to the local spending.
Four districts in Bucks and Montgomery counties, for example, pay cyber charters more than $15,000 per student, Department of Education records show. Only 15 districts pay less than $7,500 per student. No district pays less than Wolf’s proposed cap.
In addition to capping tuition, the governor wants cyber schools to refund local districts any money they don't spend.
Barbin noted that the governor’s proposed cap is actually a little higher than the $5,800 per student maximum paid to Internet-based charter schools in Ohio.
Pennsylvania paid a higher rate for cyber schools than any of 14 other states examined by the National Conference of State Legislatures in a report on the issue.
Wolf’s proposed $5,950 rate puts the state at almost the exact median tuition of states included in that study.
Wolf’s plan would save the Greater Johnstown Area School District about $380,000 a year, Barbin said.
Johnstown now pays a minimum of $8,310 per student enrolled in cyber school, state records show. The tuition for students identified as requiring special education services was almost $20,000. Last year, 60 Johnstown students took classes online.
While Wolf bases his proposed cap on the costs reported by several online programs, cyber school operators say it's not fair because they face non-instructional costs that he didn't consider.
Those include health services for state-required screenings, guidance counseling and discipline, Barnett said. Online students are also provided a computer, a printer and Internet service.
In addition, cyber schools must pay to arrange for students to take, and staff to oversee, the required Keystone Exams. Flurie said Commonwealth Connections set up 60 testing sites and spent $1 million just to administer the state tests.
Flurie said that cyber school operators estimate spending $8,500 to $9,000 per student - a cost that might be higher than critics believe because many students enroll only after falling behind in traditional schools that fail them.
"We look like an educational M.A.S.H. unit," he said.