Cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania face rule changes under a Democrat-backed House bill

The bill passed 122 to 81 on Friday, with all Democrats voting for it, joined by 20 Republicans.

An aerial view of the Pa. House of Representatives chambers

File photo: Shown is the Pennsylvania House of Representatives on Jan. 5, 2021, at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Laurence Kesterson, File)

Cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania could face greater transparency and see their funding reduced by millions of dollars under a Democrat-backed bill that passed the state House of Representatives on Friday.

However, the proposal will likely get a chilly reception in the Republican-controlled state Senate. The bill passed the House 122-81, with all Democrats voting for it, joined by 20 Republicans.

Pennsylvania’s 14 cyber charters receive public funds to pay for students’ tuition, with the money coming from school districts. Supporters say the programs help students who don’t perform well in typical learning environments. But public school advocates in Pennsylvania say that by paying cyber charters the same rate as brick-and-mortar charter schools, it’s creating a burden on school district budgets.

Attempts at reforming cyber charters have been going on for years. Former Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s efforts to impose a number of regulations for all of the state’s charter schools dissipated in budget negotiations last year. But this year, Democrats took control of the House, giving them a foothold to push for the changes.

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The measure would standardize tuition for non-special education cyber charter students. Tuition for special education students would also be aligned with the system used for school districts. In total, the proposal estimates that school districts would have to pay cyber charters about $456 million less.

The legislation also seeks additional transparency by targeting conflicts of interest and requiring the schools to comply with the state’s ethics and open records law. It would impose restrictions for things like advertising and event sponsorships, and bans enrollment incentives.

Republicans raised concerns that the legislation would torpedo cyber charters altogether. Rep. Jesse Topper, a Republican from Bedford County, said the bill was a double standard. He called it mindboggling that when a school district didn’t meet state standards, more funding was called for.

“But if a cyber charter school, particularly ones who are investing in and teaching a subset of students that were already struggling, if they somehow fall below the mark, then they need to be eliminated,” he said.

The bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Joe Ciresi, D-Montgomery, said the goal was not to close cyber charter programs, but to stop overfunding them.

“We’re looking to put money back into the public schools and also leave the choice that’s there,” he said. “We should have choice in this state. We’re asking that it’s a fair playing field.”

The latest reform effort drew support from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, which said districts pay out more than $1 billion for cyber charter school tuition, based on outdated ways of funding schools.

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