While debate continues in Harrisburg over a state formula that some say wastes taxpayer money by inflating payments to cyber charter schools, four more schools are set to open in the fall.
After rejecting seven new cyber applications earlier this year, the Pennsylvania Department of Education has given tentative approval to four that reapplied.
The green light for the new cyber charters - which typically provide online instruction to students in their homes - will boost the number of those schools in the state by 30 percent.
The 13 online charters that operated in the academic year just ended enrolled more than 42,000 students from kindergarten through high school. The new schools, according to enrollment projections in their applications, expect to swell those ranks by at least 1,500 pupils in their first year.
Only two of the state's existing cyber charters meet the state's academic standards under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
The new cyber schools received their congratulatory letters from the state Department of Education in the last four weeks. All have ties to Philadelphia, and all plan to blend online learning with regular classroom instruction or group activities.
The new ventures include a charter that will specialize in instructing students with learning difficulties. Another will focus on ancient and modern civilizations and offer Hebrew and Mandarin classes.
"We have been working on this for close to three years," said Stephen Crane, a Center City businessman and founder of the Solomon World Civilization Cyber Charter School, which expects to begin with 400 students in seventh through 10th grades. "Our first priority is very strong academics," said Crane, who considered opening a Hebrew-language charter on Vine Street in 2010.
State Auditor General Jack Wagner said Wednesday that he was surprised to learn the Education Department had approved more cyber schools. Only last week he said taxpayers could save $365 million a year if the state altered what he said was a flawed funding formula for cyber charter schools and charter schools.
He said that the amount cyber charters are paid is not based on how much it costs to educate their students and that taxpayers spend $3,500 more on each cyber student than the national average.
Wagner said the Education Department knows "this is a bad formula, and they continue to create opportunities for the misuse of public funds."
His department found that Pennsylvania taxpayers are paying far more to send students to charter schools and cyber charters than are residents of other states.
More than 18 months ago, Wagner called for a moratorium on approval of new charter schools until the funding formula was changed.
"We are calling for the Department of Education, the General Assembly, and the governor to get this right on behalf of the students and the taxpayers," Wagner said Wednesday. "We are convinced there is absolutely hundreds of millions of dollars being spent here that is not necessary."
In 2011-12, over 100,000 students across the state were enrolled at 167 charters. Philadelphia's 80 charters have 46,000 students.
Under Pennsylvania's 1997 law, public school districts are responsible for authorizing and overseeing regular charter schools. But the state Education Department has that power over cyber charters, which can draw students from across the commonwealth.
Charter schools receive funds from a student's home district. The amount is based on how much the district spends to educate its own students. Because there are 500 districts, there are 500 different charter rates.
Cyber charters receive the same amount as regular charter schools that operate buildings. But because cyber charters draw from so many districts, they receive wildly different per-pupil payments. A cyber charter received an average of $16,915 for each Montgomery County student in 2010-11 and $6,752 for one from Schuylkill County.
Many charter advocates, including the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, agree there are problems with charter funding. The coalition favors a bill that would create an independent, statewide commission to study funding.
The spokesman for Education Secretary Ron Tomalis did not respond to e-mailed questions about the new cyber charter schools. The secretary and other members of the Corbett administration have been involved in state budget talks.
The Education Department told all new cyber charters they were required to provide additional information to obtain final approvals.
Julie Stapleton-Carroll, an official at the nonprofit Foundations Inc. and a founder of the Achieving Community Transformation (ACT) Academy Charter School, said her school will send all information to Harrisburg by week's end.
A high school, ACT expects to enroll 400 students the first year.
In addition to offering classes online, ACT plans to start the academic year by bringing students together for a camp, probably in the Poconos, and again later on for a seminar on a university campus.
"The idea is that kids need to have connections with other people, but it doesn't have to be five days a week in math class," said Stapleton-Carroll, who was the founding CEO of Wissahickon Charter School in Philadelphia.
Esperanza Cyber Charter School, which eventually will span K-12, was founded by Esperanza, a nonprofit established by the Hispanic Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity.
The group operates a charter school in Philadelphia. According to its application, the cyber school will focus on instructing Hispanic students, English-language learners and at-risk youth.
Nicholas D. Torres, a founder of the Education Plus Academy Cyber Charter School, said it will specialize in educating students with language-based learning differences.
Torres, president of the nonprofit Education Plus Inc. and a former president of the Latino organization Congreso de Latinos, said the school was conceived of by parents who wanted to ensure their children with learning differences received a good education but could not afford the tuition of specialized private schools.
In addition to offering online instruction, Torres said Education Plus plans to open "learning hubs" where small groups can attend class. The school expects to begin with 100 students from kindergarten through sixth grade and expand later to K-12. The hubs' sites will be based on demand, but Torres expects most will be in the Philadelphia area at first.
Information about that cyber is available at www.edpluscharter.org.
Although four new cyber charters are poised to open, one of the 13 may close. The Philadelphia Daily News has reported that state investigators have found that Frontier Virtual Charter High School had "severe and pervasive" violations of the charter law and should be closed. Based in South Philadelphia, the troubled cyber school has had serious financial problems since it was launched in the fall.