Rising costs of cybercharter tuition beleaguer Pa. school districts

(AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach, file)

(AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach, file)

Cybercharter education is now nearly a half-billion dollar industry in Pennsylvania, according to public school advocacy group Public Citizens for Children and Youth.

Earlier this year, a bill to overhaul Pennsylvania’s charter school law — including small measures to reduce cybercharter tuition — fizzled in Harrisburg.

“We wanted to make sure people knew the scale and that it is hitting more and more school districts and a situation that needs attention by the legislature,” said Donna Cooper, PCCY executive director.

Of the $450 million PCCY calculated districts across the commonwealth are spending to enroll their students to the state’s 14 cybercharter schools, the five-county Philadelphia region contributes $132.5 million, $42 million more than five years ago.

While bricks-and-mortar charters need local school districts to authorize their locations, the state Department of Education oversees cybercharters.

In the region, Philadelphia and Bucks counties had the largest cost increase, respectively paying 59 and 55 percent more than during the 2011-2012. Delaware County is next, paying 36 percent more. A combination of rising enrollment and per-pupil tuition costs account for the bigger price tag.

“Money is going to the organization that’s educating the child,” said Bob Fayfich, executive director of Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charters, defending the costs.

“The more important issue that some people raise is is that cost reasonable relative to the cost of the cyberschool,” he said.

School districts pay tuition for each child who opts to go to a cybercharter, based on the costs of educating a single student in their own schools. Since the amounts districts spend per pupil vary widely, so do those charter tuition payments.

Fayfich said the 11 cybercharters his group represents are open to standardizing tuition payments, as long as they account for the actual expenses of operating a remote learning operation.

Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed setting payments at $5,950 per cyberstudent, but many cybercharters have opposed that figure as too low, and his plan hasn’t earned traction in Harrisburg.

Fayfich called the number a “skewed comparison” to bricks-and-mortar costs.

Cybercharters have also come under fire from the state auditor general’s office for conflicts of interest and generally lower than average performance on state standardized tests.

School districts, hemmed in by rising pension and health care costs, see cybercharters as yet another expense they can’t control — and one that exerts added pressure on the tax base.

“There’s a whole slew of costs that go into the calculation for the tuition rate that have no bearing on those students coming or going,” said Drew Bishop, business administrator at Palisades School District in Bucks County. Palisades pays $15,266.14 for each student who chooses a cybercharter, and that number rises to $34,014.5 for special-education students.

Those tuition figures are calculated to include the costs Palisades spends on offerings including “music, strings, robotics and engineering,” classes not offered by cybercharters, according to Bishop.

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