If Auditor General Jack Wagner's plea for reform in how Pennsylvania allows cyber charter schools to operate sounds familiar, it should.
For five years, Wagner has repeatedly urged the legislature to fix a system that wastes taxpayer money and poorly educates students. Unfortunately, his pleas have fallen on deaf ears, and the problems have grown.
Wagner's latest audit provides yet more compelling evidence that lawmakers must make overhauling the 1997 charter law a priority. A more equitable funding formula and better oversight for all charter schools are needed.
Need evidence? While other schools are struggling with bills, Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School amassed a $13 million savings account in 2010 - the largest budget surplus among state charter schools - and spent $2 million on advertising, according to the audit released last week.
Based in Beaver County, where it opened in 2000, Pennsylvania Cyber has 11,000 students statewide. According to the audit, the school's tuition ranges from $6,414 per pupil for students from the Altoona Area School District to a staggering $17,766 for each student from the Lower Merion School District.
The audit focused solely on Pennsylvania Cyber, but the findings reflect a systemic problem. Charter schools in Pennsylvania receive funds from a student's home district based on how much that district spends to educate its students. Because there are 500 school districts in the state, there are 500 different charter rates. That makes no sense.
Worse than that, cyber charters primarily provide online instruction to students using their home computers, but cyber charters receive the same compensation as regular charter schools, which offer classroom instruction and group activities, and must pay the cost to maintain a building.
Wagner says the funding formula creates "opportunities for the misuse of public funds." That's putting it mildly. Pennsylvania spends about $3,500 more per student than other states to educate students enrolled in cyber charters, according to Wagner. He estimates taxpayers could save $365 million a year if the state altered its charter funding formula.
The state has 13 cyber charters, which have more than 42,000 students from kindergarten through the 12th grade. But only two of them met academic standards under the federal No Child Left Behind Act last school year. Charter schools can be viable options for children trying to escape poorly performing traditional schools, but money shouldn't be wasted on charters that are just as bad.