With the anticipated loss of revenue facing school districts due to COVID-19, now, more than ever, the Pennsylvania legislature must grab the bull by the horns and reform the way cyber charter schools are funded.
Cyber charters may be a great fit for some highly motivated, self-disciplined students, or those with very involved parents or guardians. But generally speaking, cyber students are not learning, and taxpayers are paying twice what they reasonably should, with the excess funds taken away from all of the other students remaining in a school district when a parent chooses to send their child to a cyber charter.
Our school districts have pivoted quickly to offer remote learning, are planning to expand and strengthen programs for the fall, and can offer everything cybers offer, plus closer personal attention, rigorous learning, and no break if students choose to return to in-person instruction.
And as far as quality goes, cyber charters certainly have a proven track record: a dismal one.
A June 2 paper from the highly respected Brookings Institution stated, “We find the impact of attending a virtual charter on student achievement is uniformly and profoundly negative,” and then went on to say that “there is no evidence that virtual charter students improve in subsequent years.”
In 2016, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the national charter lobbying group 50CAN released a report on cyber charters that found that overall, cyber students make no significant gains in math and less than half the gains in reading compared with their peers in traditional public schools.
A Stanford University CREDO Study in 2015 found that cyber students on average lost 72 days a year in reading and 180 days a year in math compared with students in traditional public schools.
From 2005 through 2012 under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, most Pennsylvania cybers never made “adequate yearly progress.” Following NCLB, for all five years (2013-2017) that Pennsylvania’s School Performance Profile system was in place, not one cyber charter ever achieved a passing score of 70. Under Pennsylvania’s current accountability system, the Future Ready PA Index, all 15 cyber charters that operated 2018-2019 have been identified for some level of support and improvement.
Our taxpayers spend over $500 million on cyber charter tuition annually. Based on available data for the 2019-20 school year from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, tuition rates paid by school districts ranged from $7,409 to $21,602 per student, resulting in a statewide average of $12,604. Yet, most school districts offering cyberlearning options were spending $5,000 or less annually to educate students through their local online learning options. Special education cyber charter tuition ranged from $10,182 to $55,727 for an average of $27,607 per student across the state, while local school districts provided similar special ed online learning services for $7,000 or less per student.
Why is there more than a $7,000 excess cost for cyber tuition for regular education students and more than a $20,000 excess cost for cyber tuition for special education students when comparing district-run cyber programs with cyber charter programs?
Why should taxpayers fund cybers at the same rate as brick-and-mortar charters when the cyber charters have none of the expenses associated with buildings? I’ve spoken with several legislators from both parties who find this absurd and ridiculous. While districts statewide anticipate a $1 billion shortfall in local revenue for 2020-21, the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) estimates that charter and cyber tuition will increase by more than $200 million. Legislators could help by holding tuition level for the 2020-21 school year.
After 20 years, it is well past time for the legislature to act on cyber charter school funding reform.