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Make cyber schools accountable

With no public financial oversight, cyber charters are free to make a profit and spend money as they see fit.

By Lawrence A. Feinberg

What if I told you that your school district had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars over the last few years on a program it did not deliberate on and approve in public; that your district had no accountability over how your taxes were spent on it, and that the district was spending significantly more and more on it each year?

During the 2004-05 school year, districts statewide spent more than $74 million on it. Here's the kicker: They have no choice; Pennsylvania requires them to do so.

Welcome to the world of cyber charter schools.

Last year, 11 cyber charters enrolled more than 13,000 students from 493 school districts, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The students get a computer, Internet connection and textbooks. The cyber charter gets tuition per student based on a state formula that has nothing to do with actual costs, and your school district foots the bill using your tax dollars without any say in how the money is spent or how well the student is performing.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education estimates that 40 percent of new cyber charter students were previously home schooled at no cost to their school districts. Many of the others were previously enrolled in nonpublic or private schools. Additionally, children too young to enroll in their local districts are now receiving educational services from cyber schools at taxpayer expense.

Cyber schools don't charge a set tuition, but are paid by the sending school districts based on a state Department of Education formula. This year, my district pays $8,520 per pupil for regular-education students and $21,181 for each special-education student. In Lower Merion, they pay about $20,000 for regular education and $37,000 for special education; again, regardless of the actual costs to the cyber charter operator.

Unlike your local public school district, which by state law cannot accumulate a fund balance above 8 to 12 percent, cyber charter owners can roll in the dough - and spend it on whatever they want. In 2006, 80 percent of cyber charters had fund balances greater than school districts were permitted, according to the state Education Department. Five had fund balances above 30 percent; one was as high as 56 percent. There is no school board accountable to taxpayers for cyber charter schools.

So what, you might say? It's America, Land of Opportunity. Let them make a profit for their work.

I say not with my property-tax dollars. Not with my neighbors' property-tax dollars. With one hand the state has implemented Act 1 spending caps that limit school boards from raising taxes above the inflation rate, while with the other hand it is literally pumping tax dollars out of our districts to cyber school operators at an alarmingly increasing rate with little or no accountability.

If my school district pays cyber charters $300,000 this year, that's $300,000 we can't spend on something else, and $300,000 that goes into our Act 1 spending cap.

The state created cyber charters - let it pay for them; maybe then it will reimburse them at a reasonable rate that relates to actual costs. Maybe then it will require them to have independent outside audits, like regular public schools. Maybe then it will prohibit them from accumulating profits with our tax dollars.

Cyber charters may be great for some students, but that's not the issue. The fact is they are costing school districts more and more money each year. The costs need to be controlled and there needs to be accountability for both spending and performance. Last year only two of the 11 cybers made adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind guidelines.

State Rep. Karen Beyer (R., Lehigh) has introduced House Bill 446, which would transfer the funding responsibility for cyber charter schools to the commonwealth and require greater accountability from cyber charter schools. Call your school district and ask what it is spending on cyber charter tuition. Then call or write your state representative and tell him or her to support House Bill 446. It's your tax money; lots of it.