Pa. should make cyber charter school funding reform a priority

Schools that teach. A very basic concept, yet one that has more complicated layers — with one layer costing about $426 million annually.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget included a new $1 billion cumulative investment in education as well as a four-year commitment of $2 billion in new money for basic education, special education and Pre-K. The governor focused on “schools that teach” because “for our children to succeed tomorrow, every child must have access to a great education, and teachers must have the resources they need to deliver a great education.”

Students and families have the choice of the type of education they want: traditional public school, tuition-based school, charter school, cyber charter school or a hybrid. I am an avid supporter of public education and I believe in innovation. I strongly believe we should use tools and mechanisms to educate each student in the way that is best for that child. I am not proposing abolishing methods that can reach children; rather, I believe it critical that we hold education providers to heightened standards of accountability and equity and feel it only fair as taxpayer’s dollars are at issue.

There are many challenges that school districts must overcome. One of those obstacles is the staggering cost of cyber charters. Other issues, such as the wide-ranging cost per student, uneven quality of curriculum and instruction, optional qualification of teachers and poor school performance indicators pose problems for educators.

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For the 16 licensed cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania, each are paid the same per student per district rate as brick-and-mortar charter schools — without the accompanying overhead. Since there is no set cost of educating a student online, tuition costs can fluctuate tremendously from one district to another for a student attending the same cyber charter school. These tuition payments by districts added up to an astonishing $426 million in 2013-2014.

Few outside the education community realize that many cyber charter schools are managed by for-profit entities fueled by taxpayer dollars. Thus, a portion of the same funding stream used to educate students in a traditional public school is often being re-directed to cyber charter shareholders as profit.

Another criticism is that cyber charter teachers are not all state certified. Per state law, only 75 percent of teachers are required to be certified and those teachers are not subject to the same educator effectiveness accountability regulations as public school teachers.

In a 2013 issue brief titled “An Analysis of Pennsylvania’s Cyber Charter Schools,” the study group Research for Action cited the School Performance Profile (SPP) scores for the 11 cyber charters where data sets were complete. All 11 scored among the lowest performing schools in Pennsylvania. No cyber charter reached the state-level average.

As problematic, school districts are not only saddled with the financial responsibility of cyber-charter tuition for students but also for the remediation costs for the same students if they return to the traditional classroom credit deficient.

To address all these issues, I offered legislation (Senate Bill 128) to develop a system of competitive bidding for cyber charter education with the goal of identifying the true cost of online education and fair compensation for providers.

Online public education providers, including cyber charter schools as well as in-house school district cyber-charter programs, can bid to become the primary regional cyber-charter provider. The bid would be based on actual tuition cost per student with a three-year contract awarded to the lowest responsible bidder scoring above the statewide mean on its SPP.

This proposal encourages competition and innovation while still offering educational choice to families. Should a student wish to attend a cyber charter other than one provided by the school district or the primary regional cyber charter school, that will remain an option. In that case, the student’s home district will no longer be required to bear that cost.

I am encouraged that Gov. Wolf, as a part of his ambitious education plan, has made the high cost of cyber charter tuition a priority. I look forward to working with the administration and my colleagues in addressing cyber charter reimbursements as a part of a responsible education funding plan.

Cyber charter is not a “tuition-free public education.” Your tax dollars are spent on an education that is under-performing. After all, the marketing and lobbying budget for cyber charters is also paid by you and me.

Pennsylvania State Sen. Sean Wiley is a Democrat representing District 49 in Eire County. For more information about Senate Bill 128, please visit www.senatorwiley.com/legislative-services/legislation.