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Zachary K. Pearce

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The Problem of Cyber Charter School Funding In Pennsylvania

Posted: 07/06/2012 5:49 pm

As a young School Director, I have learned a lot in the first seven months that I've been on the Board of Education. One of the biggest things I've learned is the challenges we face as school directors with the budgetary uncertainties thrust upon us by Harrisburg and Washington. Each year, we're tasked with passing a budget, which must be put out for public review by law for 30 days prior to final adoption, before the end of June. Unfortunately, Harrisburg does not adopt a budget, typically, until ours is finalized, and therefore our Superintendent, Business Manager and Finance Committee must create a budget with only an estimation of what our state funds may be.

One can imagine that in tough fiscal times, especially when the federal government refuses to accept responsibility and put together a plan which will lead to a balanced budget, the complexity on the local level only increases, both for the decision-makers and for local taxpayers. As revenues level out in the current climate and costs escalate in order to pay for promises of the past, it is necessary for legislators to act to save taxpayers' money, as well as make local elected officials' task as painless as possible. Speaking for myself, the decision whether or not to raise taxes is much easier to contemplate if the costs I'm considering paying for are as minimal, or reasonable, as should be expected. Perhaps this is an utopian vision, but on the local level, it should be achievable.

After the lengthy overview, the purpose of this article is to assess one of the great costs to local school districts in Pennsylvania: cyber charter school funding. Students who reside within a given school district have the ability to attend a cyber charter school at a cost to the school district based on the average cost to educate a child within that school district, even though the cost to educate the child at the cyber charter school, is on average, $3,000 less. There are also problems of equity, or simply logic. As JoAnn Seltzer reports in Tri-County Sunday:

The cost of the tuition for a cyber school doesn't reflect how much cyber education costs, but how much the student's home district spends on education. FinGado said while one district may pay $5,000 for a student enrolled in cyber school a student from another district may pay $7,000 for that student to attend the same cyber school even though it doesn't cost the cyber school more for that student to be educated.

Naturally, there are competing views. To argue that the current funding formula is fair because it attaches the cost to the student, instead of the building, is a bit of a misnomer. For the local school district, upon which the responsibility to pay for the child's cyber education is placed, its cost per pupil is based upon building and other related expenses. In fact, cyber charter schools tend to spend, on average, about $3,000 less per pupil than traditional school districts. While Dr. James Hannak of the Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School has a vested interest, in keeping the status quo, as he makes money off that arrangement, the need for reform remains. I might also point out that Dr. Hannak's title is "CEO," indicating his school is run for profit. While I am an unabashed conservative and believe in the free-market capitalist system, I don't think for-profit corporations should be funded on the backs of taxpayers, and certainly not for the "good" of education. Hannak, in his op-ed, also ignores the blatant "double-dipping" in the retirement benefits also occurring under the current formula, as noted by PA Auditor General Jack Wagner.

In my school district, the Delaware Valley School District in Milford, PA, our costs to pay for cyber schools have gone up. In fact this year, despite a large million-dollar line item (in a sixty-eight million dollar plus budget ), we went over budget. Now that line item will stand at 1.3 million dollars in next year's budget. Retiring Superintendent Dr. Candis Finan and Business Manager Bill Hessling, both of the Delaware Valley School District (DVSD), explain that even with less students enrolled, the need to pay teachers remains, "Even if one could argue that we were able to not replace 4 to 5 teachers by attrition due to the reduction in students at D.V. [Because the students enrolled in a cyber charter school] -- the cost to the district [compared] to the cyber charter schools is probably 3 to 4 times the savings." Finan and Hessling also note, "...in D.V.'s case and we are probably one of the lowest with our low cost per student we must pay out for 2011-2012, $9,020 for Regular Ed student and $16,585 for a Special Ed student."

Reform is needed. Unfortunately, Harrisburg punted the ball, at least for now. House Bill 2364, which garnered bipartisan support, is on hold, predictably fought against by the cyber charter schools which stand to make less money in their bottom lines if it becomes law. Until HB 2364 or another bill with a similar goal is able to become law, I expect local school directors' jobs in the commonwealth to remain challenging.

 
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