The first online charter schools began educating students in their homes a decade ago amid considerable controversy. Several school districts and the Pennsylvania School Boards Association filed lawsuits, challenging their legality.
While the courts ultimately ruled on behalf of these so-called cyber charters, controversy remains.
With school districts wary of cyber charters and their ability to draw students from anywhere in the state, the legislature changed the state's charter-school law in 2002 and gave the state Department of Education responsibility for approving and overseeing cyber charters.
Critics, including the School Boards Association, still contend that virtual schools should not receive the same amount as regular charters because they cost less to operate. They point to the $28 million in surpluses at a dozen schools that the state uncovered at the end of 2005-06. The reserves equaled 26 percent of their expenses.
A lot of scrutiny was focused on the state's largest cyber with 6,850 students - Pennsylvania Cyber School in Midland, Beaver County - where the operator was accused of using charter funds to help build a $22 million performing arts center. A state grand jury spent months investigating but closed its inquiry in 2007 without issuing any indictments.
State Education Secretary Gerald L. Zahorchak and Auditor General Jack Wagner support amending the law to limit cybers' reserves and to set a statewide tuition rate.
It makes no sense, critics say, for districts to pay different amounts to a cyber when their students receive the same education. "It is like asking colleges to charge tuition based on where a student lives," said Timothy M. Allwein, assistant executive director of the School Boards Association, which plans to push in 2009 to amend the law as it applies to cyber schools.
In the last legislative session, State Rep. Karen Beyer, a Republican representing parts of Lehigh and Northampton Counties, introduced a bill with 44 co-sponsors to change the law to set a statewide tuition rate and to limit surpluses.
Cyber school parents, cyber representatives and the state charter coalition charged that the bill would cripple cyber education in the state. At three public hearings, they said cybers need reserves because many districts refuse to pay and state reimbursements take months.
Joanne Jones Barnett, CEO of Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School based in Norristown, strongly opposed the bill. She also challenged the claim that cybers cost less to operate than traditional charters.
"We have different costs," she said, noting that cybers not only provide students' instructional materials but also computers, printers and Internet service. Virtual enrolls 3,700 students.
The education committee approved an amended version of Beyer's bill, 22-6, and sent it to House Appropriations Committee on Dec. 7, 2007. Beyer tried repeatedly to get the bill released, but it remained stuck in the committee and died when the legislature adjourned in November.
Beyer is not sure if she will re-introduce the measure when the new legislature convenes next month.
If she wants to get anywhere, she'll have to take on Rep. Dwight Evans, the committee chair who held up her bill for a nearly a year. Evans, a Philadelphia Democrat, said he opposed it because he feared her proposal would have killed cybers and eliminated that option for parents. In Philadelphia, 2,176 students are enrolled in cybers.
"The measure I introduced was not about destroying cyber charter schools. I believe they're here to stay," Beyer said. "I just wanted them to be held accountable."